Also see: Bracket Noise: Cinderellas
Basketball legend Red Auerbach said it best, "Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up."
With the ides of March upon us, watery-browed coaches have logged endless hours of film study and practice time preparing their teams for the inevitable last stand. From Barbee down to Smith, every clipboard holder has repeatedly stressed the importance of active hands, bodying up and holding ground.
They know, just as well as pundits do, defense wins championships.
Unfortunately, for some high-profiled teams, the almighty D has and will continue to be elusive.
Defensive flaws and poor interior depth could give Jay Wright's 'Cats the quick hook
Exhibit A: Villanova.
Last season, "Cat Scratch Fever" invaded Detroit. The Wildcats' stellar guard play, experience and frontline depth propelled the No. 3 seed to the Final Four for the first time since improbably cutting down the nets in 1985. With decorated leader Scottie Reynolds and marksmen Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes returning, many pegged the Big East Goliath as the Right Coast's primary contender. Though one of the nation's most potent offenses – 'Nova ranks eighth in offensive efficiency – inconsistencies on the defensive end have proved troubling. As projected earlier this season, the 'Cats suffered a late-season downfall, dropping six of their final 10 contests. Reynolds' boom-bust performance was exemplary of his team's unsteadiness in the homestretch.
The reason why the Wildcats are limping into the Dance: inadequate defense.
Reynolds admitted recently that practices have been "Freakin' crazy …" in capital letters. Our intensity is at another level." However, the energy and enthusiasm exuded in practice hasn't been conveyed in real game-action. Based on its No. 62 ranking in defensive efficiency, Villanova's defensive acuity has dulled. In its six losses since February 6, Jay Wright's club has surrendered an atrocious 1.17 points per possession. If that poor performance carries over into postseason play, the 'Cats will have to execute almost flawlessly on offense to survive and advance. Looking at the strong defensive schools on its side of the bracket (i.e. Richmond, St. Mary's, Old Dominion, Baylor), 'Nova's chances of escaping its region are Mr. Pretzel-slim.
Over the course of recent tournament history, schools with a wide disparity in offensive and defensive efficiency have pulled up lame. Texas in '07 (No. 5 in offensive, No. 62 in defensive efficiency), Pittsburgh in '08 (8, 54) and Marquette in '09 (9, 51) are clear-cut examples. Neither team advanced past the second round. In fact, no team since 1999 has reached the Final Four with a defensive efficiency ranking outside 25.
Bottom line: losing Dante Cunningham(notes), Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark to graduation has transformed the highly regarded Cats from contender to pretender. Unless they cannonball into a vat filled with lucky shamrocks and green beer on St. Patrick's Day, Villanova's inefficiencies on the defensive end, particularly from long range, will lead to its early-round doom.
It seems 'Nova's defense may never catch up.
Here are five teams bound to bloody your bracket:
New Mexico Lobos
3 – East
Starting Five: G – Phillip McDonald (10.7 ppg, 39.7 3PT%), G – Dairese Gary (12.7 ppg, 3.9 apg), G – Darrington Hobson (16.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 4.6 apg), F – A.J. Hardeman (7.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F – Roman Martinez (13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Wins: California (won by 8), at Texas A&M (3), Dayton (2), BYU (4), San Diego St (2), at UNLV (10), at BYU (2)
Key Losses: at Oral Roberts (loss by 9), at San Diego St. (10), UNLV (12), San Diego St. (N) (3)
Why they bust: Former Indiana boy wonder, Steve Alford, has done a masterful job in Albuquerque. Quite possibly the greatest team in New Mexico's rich basketball history, this year's Lobos emerged from the shadows to be one of the nation's most feared teams. However, behind the mask, the Mountain West giants aren't so frightful. Yes, swingman Darington Hobson is an incredibly gifted all-around player whose length and versatility makes him difficult to contain. New Mexico's numerous marquee Ws (six vs. RPI top 50), including road victories at dancing participants UNLV and BYU, are also noteworthy. But the façade is nothing more than show. The Lobos are the second-worst at-large representative – Notre Dame takes the cake – on defense, yielding 0.96 points per possession, the 87th-best mark in the country. Opponents have netted 49.1 percent of their shots inside the arc against them. Montana paint patrollers, 7-footer Derek Selvig and 6-foot-11 Brian Qvale, could have a field day against the No. 3 seeded Lobos. Even if they survive Round 1, the length and/or athleticism of either Marquette or Washington could prove problematic. Don't be sucked in by their gaudy record.
4 – West
Starting Five: G – Jermaine Beal (14.7 ppg, 3.2 apg), G – Brad Tinsley (7.0 ppg, 2.9 apg), G – John Jenkins (10.9 ppg, 47.9 3PT%), F – Jeffery Taylor (13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), C – A.J. Ogilvy (13.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Key Wins: at St. Mary's (2), Missouri (6), Florida (8), at Tennessee (9), Tennessee (19), at Florida (4)
Key Losses:Cincinnati (N) (loss by 9), at Illinois (11), Western Kentucky (7), at Kentucky (13), at Georgia (14), Kentucky (2), Mississippi St. (N) (10)
Why they bust: Tournament underachievement could become commonplace for the Commodores. In essence, they're the Eddie Murphys of the SEC. Vanderbilt has done the Humpty Hump eight times in school history, but has never advanced past the Sweet 16. Two seasons ago, in arguably its most embarrassing defeat in school history, Kevin Stallings' club was throttled by 13-seeded Siena 83-62. Matched against an athletic, well-balanced and pesky Murray St. team, another trip to Disappointment City could be on the horizon. Turnover prone, rebounding challenged and generally unsavory defensively, Vandy is generous to its opponents. On the season, it ranks 64th in overall defensive efficiency and 144th in three-point percentage defense. Against the Racers, A.J. Ogilvy will have to dominate the paint for the Commodores to dodge another early round torpedo. Assuming it squeaks bye the Racers, a potential second round matchup with D stalwart UTEP would be daunting. Bitterness, not sweetness, will touch the tongues of those who invest heavily in Vanderbilt.
4 – South
Starting Five: G – E'Twaun Moore (16.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G – Keaton Grant (6.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg), G – Chris Kramer (6.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg), G – Lewis Jackson (2.2 ppg, 2.9 apg), C – JaJuan Johnson (15.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Key Wins: Tennessee (N) (won by 1), Wake Forest (11), West Virginia (15), Minnesota (19), Wisconsin (3), at Michigan St. (12), at Minnesota (1)
Key Losses: at Wisconsin (loss by 7), at Ohio St. (4), at Northwestern (8), Michigan St. (9), Minnesota (N) (27)
Why they bust: Just three weeks ago, Purdue was a legitimate Final Four contender. One Robbie Hummel torn ACL later, it's a popular Cinderella victim. The junior's exuberance, defense, leadership and clutch play are irreplaceable. Absent Hummel's 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, the Boilers, frankly, need "more cowbell" offensively. Lewis Jackson's foot-tweaking only complicates matters. Destroyed by Minnesota 69-42 in the Big Ten tourney semis, Purdue was in complete disarray offensively, shooting a ghastly 27.6 percent from the field. Against an experienced and athletic Siena team, the Boilers must slow the Saints down by pressuring the ball in halfcourt man-to-man sets. If they can do that, they may be able to steal a win. However, due to their lack of confidence and depth, seeing the sun come up on Monday will likely be a stretch. Texas A&M or Utah St. are far from favorable second round matchups. For the Boilers, it's a classic case of what could've been.
Duke Blue Devils
1 – South
Starting Five:G – John Scheyer (18.6 ppg, 5.0 apg), G – Nolan Smith (17.3 ppg, 2.9 apg), F – Kyle Singler (17.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg), F – Miles Plumlee (5.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg), F – Lance Thomas (4.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Key Wins: Gonzaga (N) (35), Clemson (21), Wake Forest (20), at Clemson (13), Florida St. (14), Georgia Tech (19), Maryland (21)
Key Losses: at Wisconsin (4), at Georgia Tech (4), at North Carolina St. (14), at Georgetown (12), at Maryland (7)
Why they bust: The illustrious career of Mike Krzyzewski is well-documented in car commercials, motivational videos and print. Whether or not you like him, he's a legendary coach. But underneath the numerous 20-win seasons this decade, the Blue Devils have greatly underachieved. In their past five tourney appearances, they've not advanced past the Sweet 16. For self-proclaimed Pomeroyans, Duke is the best team in the country. Ranked in the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency, it's the epitome of balance. But the Blue Devils' despondent play away from Cameron Indoor – Duke has just one road win against another tournament team (Clemson) – combined with the mediocre state of this year's ACC means the top seed isn't without vulnerabilities. Shot selection, rebounding and interior defense – the Tobacco Roadsters rank 205th in two-point percentage D – will be critical to their success. A second round matchup with Samardo Samuels and Louisville, which upended Syracuse twice this season, could prove devastating.
1 – East
Starting Five: G – John Wall (16.9 ppg, 6.4 apg), G – Eric Bledsoe (10.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg), G – Darius Miller (6.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg), F – Patrick Patterson (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), F – DeMarcus Cousins (15.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg)
Key Wins: Connecticut (N) (3), Louisville (9), at Florida (12), Tennessee (11), at Vanderbilt (2), Florida (8), Tennessee (N) (30)
Key Losses: at South Carolina (6), at Tennessee (9)
Why they bust: Experience is youth's best teacher. Unfortunately, for the ultra-talented Wildcats there isn't more time to learn. Kentucky is an incredibly gifted team. Point guard John Wall and interior Frankenstein DeMarcus Cousins will soon be NBA franchise cornerstones. Their efforts combined with the 'Cats' terrific depth and well-rounded play – they rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency – portends to a title game appearance. But reckless ball-handling (167th in offensive TO%) and inconsistent three-point shooting (173rd in 3PT% offense) are red flags which can't be ignored. Kentucky's relatively soft non-conference slate combined with the SEC's general mediocrity has artificially inflated the team's statistical standing, and quite possibly its reputation among pundits. Make no mistake, John Calipari's kids have the skills to pay the Final Four bills, but their lack of big stage seasoning could leave them vulnerable to the likes of veteran-heavy, gritty defensive squads Wisconsin, Temple or West Virginia. Don't automatically assume this team will sprint to Indy.
Below are a handful of fast facts to help you construct the ultimate bracket.
• Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell is 0-6 in tournament games.
• Duke is 13-2 in first and second round games since 2002 but 1-5 in the Sweet 16
• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated in Round 2 every year since 2000
• Only 12 No. 8/9 seeds have toppled a No. 1 in Round 2 since 1985
Notable high-major conference overall win percentages since 2000: High-major conference win percentage since 2000: ACC (66.6%), Big East (62.6%), SEC (59.9%), Big Ten (59.8%), Big 12 (59.1%), Pac-10 (56.6%)