Offensive Basketball: The Key to the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 24th, 2016

This year’s Sweet Sixteen is an odd group. The NCAA Tournament seems to have proven especially hard to predict this year, with lower seeded teams completely outplaying higher seeds, blowouts in games that should have been close, and all kinds of crazy endings. As we embark into the second weekend, what is left to hold on to as data analysts? How about offense? More than ever, the fickle filters of the Tournament have eliminated all but the very best offensive teams.

Iowa State's Offense, Led by Georges Niang, Ran into the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Iowa State’s Offense, Led by Georges Niang, Ran into the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Look at KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings and you’ll notice that just about every elite offensive team is still around. Kentucky (third in offensive efficiency) lost to Indiana (eighth), leaving top-ranked Michigan State as the only elite offensive team to get prematurely eliminated — we’ve since come to accept that loss for what it was and stopped trying to rationalize it. Even Syracuse, languishing behind the pack with the 52nd-best offense, has been playing extremely well on that end of the floor, rising 23 spots in the offensive rankings in just two games. This leaves buzzer-beating Wisconsin as the only other true outlier among the remaining teams, ranking 88th in offensive efficiency. What this tells us is that you need a great offense to survive the opening weekend, but is that anything new? Let’s look at the last five years to find out.

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In the past five years, the trend line is clear: Defense has become steadily less important while offense has become king. With Sweet Sixteen offenses ranking among the top 20 most efficient and defenses ranking among the top 40 most efficient — the biggest difference between the two over the last five NCAA Tournaments — the implication is that recent NCAA rule changes encouraging offense could be the root cause.

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Can we now expect the best offenses of this group to make it all the way? From here the data gets messier, but defense has been increasingly relevant as teams moved deeper into the Tournament. Staying in our window of the past five years, only two Elite Eight teams have ranked worse than 90th in defensive efficiency and neither made the Final Four. That doesn’t bode well for Iowa State (94th), Duke (109th) and Notre Dame (172nd) this weekend. Additionally, most National Champions rank among the 10 best defensive units, and the worst defensive team to win it all was 21st. So perhaps the most diplomatic answer is that a team needs offense to get there and defense to win it. This would mean that one of Virginia, Kansas and Villanova — the only remaining teams ranking among the top 10 in defensive efficiency — might be poised to cut the nets down in Houston.

All of these trends have helped us make sense of a crazy NCAA Tournament, but we’ll have to wait because it seems as if anything is possible — just ask Middle Tennessee State.

William Ezekowitz (30 Posts)

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