Does Defense Win Championships? A Look Back at 10 Years of March Madness

The age old term, especially here in Cincinnati, is “Defense Wins Championships.” Is it true? Is defense the single most important thing to have in basketball? Does history favor an elite defense or a high scoring offense come March?

This answer is surprisingly hard to find, and even harder to decide how to come to a conclusion. The NCAA ranks their teams offense by Points Per Game, and defense by Points Per Game Allowed. Although these do tell a story, I wanted a more insightful tool to rank the best of both sides of the ball. I decided the best free tool in deciding was to look at the Kenpom Offensive and Defensive Adjusted Efficiency Ratings. These ratings are calculated by Points Scored Per 100 Possessions for offensive and Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions for defense. This stat proved to be the most insightful rating, looking back on history and weeding out lesser teams that score a ton, but are frankly irrelevant.

To answer the age old question I compiled the top 5 offensive teams and top 5 defensive teams from the past 9 seasons (10 Years) to see how they fared come tournament time. I specifically looked at a tally of how many of those teams reached the final four and, in turn won the national championship. Here are the results, warning death by stats coming, but I will explain after.

As you can see i love me some stats and there is a TON of information there. Here is it broken down into some main points:

  • Over the past 9 Seasons
    • 8 of the 45 top 5 offensive teams reached Final Fours (18%)
      • 3 of Which won the National Championship (7%)
    • 11 of the 45 top 5 defensive teams reached Final Fours (24%)
      • 1 of Which won the National Championship (2%)
    • 3 Teams that ranked both in the top 5 for Offense and Defense all made their respective Final Fours (100%)
      • All 3 Won Their National Championships (100%)

So what does this mean? Does defense win championships? Are Offensive Squads more likely to win? According to this set of data a top 5 defense is likely to get you to a Final Four, but when it comes to a National Championship you have to be able to score. On the other end of the court a top 5 offense might give you a better shot at being a National Champ once you get to the big game, but the road there may be a little harder. The answer? Have both. I know it doesn’t take a spreadsheet and 9 seasons worth of stats to tell you that is the best shot at winning a National Title, but it is. The 3 teams that ranked in the top 5 offensively and defensively (08′ Kansas, 10′ Duke, 16′ Nova) 3/3 for National Titles in that 10 year span.

Adam, are you saying UC doesn’t have a chance at a title? No, defense gets you late into March, but even if a team isn’t elite doesn’t mean they are not contenders. Out of the 9 Seasons 3 of those the National Champions were not top 5 in either Offense or Defense. March is Madness, The Bearcats have an elite defense that can take them deep into the tourney, and to the promise land, San Antonio. Once a team reaches the Final Four heart and experience takes over, and Cincinnati has got a ton of that. Go Cats.


All Stats were taken from and



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