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March Madness and Defense

   by Al McMordie - 03/23/2011

If you didn't get enough madness this weekend, or were out of town, don't sweat it. You get to go mad all over again! The wildness that is March tournament play rolls on. One of the great parts of March tournament play is the amount of sidebars that can pop up with respect to handicapping. That is, tournament play offers bettors many different factors to analyze and digest.
With the games meaning so much, this is a great time to mention how important defense is. Strong defense requires all-out effort from players, and we are now reaching that point in the year where the meaning of games is far more intense. Win or go home is far different than the regular season, when you have a chance to play again. Lose one game and no matter how great your season might have been, it is over (just ask Louisville and Pitt).
Don't be surprised to see a lot more fierce defensive games with so much on the line now. Morehead State only shot 36% against Louisville on Day 1, but played a slow, defensive game that allowed them to knock off the Cardinals. Louisville was outrebounded 41-29 and a 13-seed defeated a 4-seed for the fourth straight tournament.
No. 1 seed Pitt used its trademark calling card defense to shut down UNC-Asheville in the opener, allowing 51 points and 31% shooting, but then had the trick turned against it by getting beat by Butler, 71-70. Butler has won 11 straight overall and is 7-1 in its last eight NCAA tournament games. It’s March, it happens!
The big story a year ago this weekend was Northern Iowa upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas, 69-67. Kansas was the first No.1 seed to lose before the Sweet 16 since Kentucky and Stanford both accomplished the feat in 2004. How did they do it? Holding Kansas to 44% shooting and just 26% from beyond the arc. That might have been something new for Kansas, but it was nothing new for the Panthers, one of the top defensive teams in the country. They stayed fairly even on the boards and were able to win despite shooting just 40%. How? DE-FENSE!
That was the third lowest scoring total all season for Kansas, and it was no surprise it went 0-3 ATS in those games. Offense requires timing, practice and even rhythm, with so much passing and cutting involved. It's not that difficult for defenses to put in new wrinkles to upset an opponent's timing or attack the shooter. With so much at stake in March, it's not surprising coaches will stress the importance of defense and demand it, many times on every possession.
Temple and San Diego State are two outstanding defensive teams and they played a game Saturday that went over the total. However, they needed double overtime to do that. For the game Temple shot 37.9% and SDSU 43%. It was 54-54 at the end of regular as both teams played exceptional defense.
San Diego State couldn't shoot straight most of the night, and turned the ball over at the worst of times. The Aztecs were held to a season-low 18 points in the 2nd half, as the patient Owls clawed back into it with defense. SDSU blocked six shots, four by Malcom Thomas, none bigger than his rejection of Lavoy Allen's inside attempt in the final minute with the Aztecs clinging to a 67-64 lead. The 135 combined points scored was the fewest by two teams in a double-OT (or longer) tournament game since the shot clock was introduced in 1986.
Styles of play can even change during tournament play, usually the slower-paced or better defensive team can take charge of pacing. Think back to the 2008 tournament run by Florida and Ohio State. The Gators had a reputation of a run-and-gun offense, yet in the first SEC tourney game they shut down Georgia, 74-57, in a game that went under the total. In the SEC title game, the Florida defense rose up again holding Arkansas to 56 points in a game that went under the total.
Ohio State, with then-freshman Greg Oden, also went 2-1 under the total in the Big 10 tournament, holding Purdue to 52 and Wisconsin to 49 in the final two games. Even uptempo teams can bring a fierce defensive effort that oddsmakers and bettors might not expect. The Conference USA championship a few years ago pitted Memphis and UAB, two strong running teams. Yet, they played lights-out defense in a 57-46 Memphis win. That game went under the total by 41 points! That same season uptempo Florida beat South Carolina for the SEC title, 49-47, in a game going under the total of 130. It's common to see close games and fierce defensive battles.
Many of the smaller conference teams know they don’t have the depth or inside size to get into a track meet with some bigger schools, so they have to slow the pace down. That’s what George Mason did to Villanova last Friday, allowing 57 points and 36% shooting, reminiscent of its 2006 run to the Final Four, which was also all about defense.

Think back a year ago when No. 2 seed Villanova got upset by St. Mary's because it scored 68 points, far below its average, and shot 36%. The Wildcats had to face 6-foot-11 Omar Samhan, who took the floor for the Gaels and the Villanova frontcourt defenders were either undersized or under-experienced. They couldn't do much to stop him. That same tournament, smaller schools like Northern Iowa carried a 19-8 run under the total into the tourney, as did St. Mary's, on a 10-3 run under.

Seven years ago, UConn went 2-1 under the total in the Big East tournament, holding Notre Dame to 58, Villanova to 67, and Pitt to 58, one that started a 5-1 under the total run the rest of March. That same season Wisconsin turned on the defense, going 2-1 under the total in the tourney, knocking off Illinois 70-58 as a one-point dog in the title game. Over the next few weeks you will see upsets, fantastic finishes and plenty of rugged defense. Because March is money time, the time of the year for intense defense! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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