BREAKING NEWS: College Basketball Just Realized Defense Wins Championships

Defense Wins

D-fence

ESPN: The site was KenPom.com.

At the time, I had never heard of it. But Salmons told me he respected the site so much that if he knew a gambler was using it, he’d be more inclined to move a line. The guy who had just bet was a KenPom user. Back then, KenPom was a little-known website run by Salt Lake City-based meteorologist Ken Pomeroy, who was obsessively compiling college basketball stats and spitting them back out in increasingly different ways. He ranked teams based on efficiency and tempo, not just performance. They were college basketball advanced metrics and they were revelatory — especially for gamblers.

Before the Super Bowl, I wrote that Vegas is the leading indicator when it comes to economic recovery. Well, the same holds true for advanced data. That is where the edge is and, if someone is doing it right, they figure it out quickly. KenPom was doing it right. And it signified the beginning of analytics getting its due in the college basketball space. (The irony: After I learned about Pomeroy, I had him on a couple of my podcasts until he told me he was going to pass because he didn’t want to be too closely connected to gambling.)

What you see now is Florida coach Billy Donovan remaking his team into a defensive flytrap. He realized that the teams advancing to the Final Four consistently ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency rating (DER), but not necessarily top 10 in plain-old defense. (I am stealing this stat from a story about Florida that will appear in ESPN The Magazine’s Analytics Issue, written by Eddie Matz, out next week. Too bad, Matz.) This season, Donovan’s Gators surprised the masses with their run into the top 10, which was earned with a DER of 82.5, No. 1 in the country.

Do you know which team ranks No. 2 in DER? The other Florida-based team that people are freaking out about, the Miami Hurricanes. It’s no surprise that Miami, led by former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, is dominating in a stat that just a few years ago only mattered to stat-heads and gamblers. Last season, in The Mag’s first analytics issue, Peter Keating wrote a great piece about how Larranaga was remaking Miami through metrics.

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This is exactly why Dan Hurley is a great hire for URI. I willingly admit that I was a fan of Jim Baron. I know he had a couple of teams that really underachieved but I always felt as though he was only a good recruit away from getting over the hump. But, that window closed after 2010-2011 season. After that season, Baron had to completely retool the team and was forced to play a lot of raw, but talented, freshmen. I knew, deep down, that if he had to start over, that he wouldn’t survive. URI’s AD, Thorr Bjorn, was hired after Baron was hired and was waiting for that widow to close so that he could let Baron go and bring in “his guy.”

That was actually the best thing that could have happened to URI as Baron was the Mike D’Antoni of college basketball. Baron’s philosophy was “we’re going to win by simply scoring more points than you.” It was all offense and zero focus on defense. Baron thought his teams could just out-run the opponents all the time. Unfortunately for Baron, that philosophy is why URI always seemed to collapse at the end of the season. The players were gassed from an entire season of being the “Runnin’ Rams.”

Looking at what this article is pointing out, the new trend for success in college basketball is to start with defense then work in an offensive system. Jim Baron is now about to learn if he’s dinosaur or a mouse. Dinosaurs couldn’t adapt to external, environmental changes and went extinct. Mice (and other small mammals) adapted and survived and evolved. Thorr must have believed that Baron (and the whole Runnin’ Rams – birthplace of the fast break) is a dinosaur who will refuse to adapt and take down the program he is with along with him.

Thorr parted ways with Baron and brought in Dan Hurley who immediately brought with him a focus on being a defense-first team. There was a line that Theo Epstein once used when justifying a free agent signing who was a great fielder but suspect in the batter’s box; that line is “defense is slump-proof.” What he meant by that is while batters can get hot and get cold and seem streaky. A great defensive player, however, will always be a good defensive player and won’t go into slumps where the player just “forgets” how to field a ground ball or a fly ball.

The same philosophy can be laid here at URI. Munford, Malone, Malesevic, Powell, everyone will have nights where their shots just aren’t falling. If they play solid, fundamental defense then that should keep them in most, if not all, games and their offense, when on-point, will be able to secure the win for URI. This is the current trend that seems to be catching fire in college basketball and I am glad that Thorr was able to see that trend before the rest of us and brought in the right coach to help URI get better. This defense may be good enough for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, probably sooner rather than later too.

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