In Defense of the Defense: A statistical look at Villanova basketball's defensive strength
It's easy to forget what the outlook of Villanova basketball was as recently as this past December. The Wildcats did not appear headed to the NCAA tournament until incredible back to back upsets of Louisville and Syracuse. What differentiated the 2013 team from the 13-19 team the year before? Defense.
On November 20, Villanova gave up 1.12 points per possession to a below average Ivy League team. Two months later, the eventual National Champs scored just 0.85 points per possession at the Wells Fargo Center. It was Louisville's third-worst offensive performance of their entire 40 game season.
First, let's take a look at Villanova last season relative to the rest of the Big East (Note: Big East games only). All numbers are from Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings.
The graph above takes a little getting used to, but is a very powerful tool. Teams at the top of the graph are the best defensive teams. Teams to the right are the best offensive teams. As you can see, Villanova allowed 95.2 points per 100 possessions in Big East play, making them the fourth best defense in the league right behind Georgetown and Pitt. Offensively, however, Villanova was right around the league average at 99.1 points scored per 100 possessions.
Next, we can look at the previous 10 Villanova seasons. Notice the change in scale from the first graph to the second:
Here we can see that Villanova has been an above average offensive team for the last 10 years, but usually a below average defensive team. "Average" in the case actually means Big East average, which is obviously far different from NCAA average. Villanova rarely make it into the top right quadrant due to defense, but the best teams make up for it with extremely good offenses. It's not surprising that for both the 2009 final four and 2006 elite eight runs Nova combined fantastic offenses with some of the better Jay Wright defenses. It might be a bit bigger surprise that 2013 Villanova was both the worst offensive and best defensive team in the last 10 years.
Villanova was so successful on defense for several different reasons, but these three in particular are very noteworthy:
1. Rotations against the pick and roll. Nova's pick and roll coverage varied depending on the defender guarding the roll man. Mouph and Ochefu defended by essentially bumping the ball handler on a hard hedge. The goal was to force the guard to dribble east/west instead of north/south off the pick. This gave the on-ball defender enough time to recover to the ball handler. The other three Nova defenders sagged into the paint until Mouph/Ochefu had successfully both hedged and recovered.
2. Interior shot defense. There's hardly a more telling defensive stat than opponent 2P%. Studies show that defenses have much less control than you would think over opponent 3P%, but that's not the case when it comes to 2P%. Big East opponents shot just 41.6% from two against Villanova last season. The only Big East team who guarded better was Louisville (41.1%). Ochefu showed signs of being a good shot blocker last season, but Mouph's ability to rotate and play good help defense without necessarily blocking shots will be missed. Still, the development of Ochefu and the versatile Nova forwards will help this year's team remain solid down low.
3. Forcing turnovers, especially late in the season. The Wildcats turned their Big East opponent's over 21.4% of the time, third in the conference. However, that number was even higher during the last four games of the season. In the final game of the regular season, Georgetown turned the ball over a season high 36% of the time at the Wells Fargo Center. That was followed up by turning over St. John's on 25% their possessions at MSG, also a season high for the Red Storm. Louisville and UNC both had similar troubles in Villanova's last two postseason games. The 1-2-2 three-quarter court press was definitely a useful tool for Jay Wright last year, but down the stretch the team also forced turnovers in the half court. Constant defensive intensity caused teams like Georgetown to run their offensive sets much farther from the basket than usual. Opponents looked uncomfortable executing on offense at the end of the season.
The focus is usually on the offense when it comes to Jay Wright basketball, but defense sent the team back to the NCAA tournament in 2013. Combine a typical Villanova offense with the 2013 defense and you have a complete team poised to make a deep run into March.
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