As John Wooden famously said, "basketball is not a complicated game."
For the most part, the most effective way to score in basketball is to get as close to the goal as possible before shooting. This eternal truth applies at all levels of the game, and has been true throughout its history.
Perhaps the most important part of defense is to limit these chances near the basket, and to make sure that someone is ready to contest them when they inevitably occur. This basic fact is part of the reason why six out of the last ten NCAA champions finished the season ranked in the top 25 in shot block percentage.
The year 2013 has again brought us a surprising mix of teams to the Final Four. But when we look at things from the perspective that the best teams generally defend the rim, the quartet starts to make more sense. Three of these four teams excel at defending the rim. In an average NCAA game, 34 percent of all shots are taken at the rim and these shots are made about 61 percent of the time, while 10 percent of all shots at the rim are blocked. Here are what those percentages look like for Louisville, Syracuse, Wichita State, and Michigan.
Rim defense of the 2013 Final Four participants.
|Team||% opp attempts at rim||FG% at rim||Block % at rim|
As we see from the table above, all four remaining teams in this year's NCAA tournament are better than average at limiting opponents' chances from in close, and only Michigan is below average when it comes to opponents' field goal percentage on shots at the rim. Louisville, Syracuse, and Wichita State all protect the rim with shot blockers. Syracuse and Wichita State rank second and third in the nation in at rim shot block percentage (Hoop-Math.com).
To put these numbers into context, the difference between allowing 57 percent shooting at the rim (like Syracuse) and 63 percent shooting (like Michigan) is worth about 0.03 points per defensive possession, or 2 points over a 67 possession game. This may not seem like much of a difference, but in terms of its effect on the final score of an average game, it is worth slightly more than the difference between shooting 38 percent and shooting 34 percent from three-point range. That's a difference that just happens to be equal to Michigan's perimeter shooting advantage over Syracuse.
The basic importance of protecting the bucket was highlighted nicely in Louisville's Elite 8 victory over Duke on Sunday. The Cardinals beat the Blue Devil defense like a drum, getting to the rim without trouble, and shooting there without worry. In all, 27 of Louisville's 55 shot attempts were layups or dunks, and the Cardinals converted on 70 percent of those. Duke big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are both outstanding players, but neither one is a rim defender, as demonstrated by the fact that Blue Devil opponents made 62 percent of their shots at the hoop this season. This lack of an inside presence, as well as Coach K's style of defense that focuses more on perimeter pressure and limiting three-point attempts at the expense of allowing some penetration, allowed Russ Smith and Peyton Siva to spend much of their Easter Sunday shooting lightly contested layups.
The three outstanding interior defenses in the Final Four all have outstanding big men. Louisville's pressure defense is well complemented by an ability to defend the rim, with shot blocker Gorgui Dieng swatting just under 10 percent of opponent two point attempts while on the floor (source Kenpom.com). When Dieng is out of the game, Montrezl Harrell picks up some of the slack. For Syracuse, Rakeem Christmas blocks 11 percent of opponent twos at the back of Jim Boeheim's zone. Christmas also gets help from Baye Keita and several other Orange defenders. The Shockers' D is anchored by Carl Hall and 7-0 Ehimen Orukpe. Orukpe deflects such a high percentage of opponent shots (12.6%) that he is second on his team in blocks per game while only playing 15 minutes per contest.
Fans and the media love to focus on guards, but even in this era of the three point shot, basketball still favors the tall. The story was more or less the same last season, when Final Four teams Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisville all excelled at defending the basket. And it was the same in the chaotic tournament of 2011, when Final Four participants Kentucky and Connecticut both held opponents to only 53 percent shooting on layups and dunks.
Being big and protecting the basket works. It has always worked. And it will work until the end of time.