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Defenses Come Up Big in Tourney Time

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/21/2007

You will notice many of the strong defensive teams advanced in this past weekend's blitz of NCAA tournament games: Ohio State, Texas A&M, Southern Illinois, Georgetown, USC, Butler, UCLA and Pitt. Texas A&M was a good example of a sound, disciplined, though undersized, defensive team that exceeded expectations. The Aggies shut down Penn (allowing 52 points), then upset Louisville holding the Cardinals to 27% shooting from long range (5-of-18).

That’s nothing new, either. A year ago the Aggies knocked off Syracuse in the first game, 66-58, playing their style, a slow, defensive game. Then in the next round, they should have upset LSU, until a back-breaking three-pointer in the final seconds beat them 58-57. Still, Texas A&M is 4-0 against the spread the last two tournaments as their great defense keeps them in games, even as a dog.

UCLA is playing the same brilliant, choking defense under Ben Howland that carried then all the way to the title game a year ago. The Bruins are 2-0 under the total in the tourney, allowing 42 and 49 points! A year ago they were just as impressive on the defensive end, as Howland had them playing some terrific D, going 4-2 under the total in the 2006 tourney. That was the same tourney that saw great defense from upstarts Bradley and George Mason that led the way in their upsets over Pitt and North Carolina.

Like in all sports, defense is most important when the games mean more. We all watched the Colts romp through the NFL playoffs on their way to winning the Super Bowl, with a surprisingly stout defense. Think back to the NBA Finals almost a year ago. The Heat won the title over Dallas because of inspired defensive play: Miami was 10-2 under the total their final 12 playoff games! The year before, who faced each other in the Finals? The Pistons and Spurs, certainly not teams where offense comes to mind as the strengths of each. Defense and lower scoring games are not uncommon with postseason battles in all sports.

USC just upset Texas with a match-up edge at guard and with defense. USC won by playing smarter, more disciplined basketball, especially on the defensive end, and looking much more like a team in doing it, winning 87-68 as a dog! Texas shot 37% and 7-of-28 from long range.

Speaking of defense, how about tiny Butler? The Bulldogs stunned Maryland, holding the Terrapins to 59 points, 20 points below its season average! The Terps were undone by an aggressive and smaller team, which kept their offense out of rhythm. Butler guard A.J. Graves outplayed Maryland star swingman, D.J. Strawberry, who failed to score a point in the first half and finished with eight. It was obvious Butler controlled the tempo, as the Bulldogs allowed 57 points per game for the season. By the way, Butler is 6-0 SU/ATS as a dog this season! Defense pays dividends, not only with totals but allowing big dogs to keep games close.

That's what makes tournament play so interesting is the different in styles. Some teams prefer to slow the tempo down, while other teams (Memphis, North Carolina) prefer to run all night. Make sure you examine strengths and weaknesses of each teams, and don't forget to examine defense, because it's more important this time of the season!

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