Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)


Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)


Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

But perhaps considering the top 25 for five straight years is too unforgiving of a metric. We decided to expand it to the top 50 to see if that evens out the numbers between offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s only a third of the way through the season (and, hey, it’s the holidays), so we gave the benefit of the doubt to a couple of coaches with pristine offensive or defensive track records for teams that have slipped this year. Still, though, it appears easier to stay very good at producing great defense year after year than it is for producing great offense.

Offensive Efficiency (Top 50)


Defensive Efficiency (Top 50)


Some interesting notes from the table: North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and Kansas’ Bill Self are the only coaches consistent enough to appear on both lists. Also, North Carolina truly is a hub of offensive basketball, with four of the 11 most consistent offensive teams (Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Davidson) residing in the Tar Heel State.

These results make good intuitive sense. It is easier for coaches to teach young players how to play good defense than offense, as the former relies less on athleticism and more on transferable skills that a good coach can teach — things like great effort, positional awareness and overall team cohesion. Certain coaches can be relied upon for offensive or defensive prowess, though, so look for those trends to continue as we head into conference play.

William Ezekowitz (30 Posts)

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