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Tourney Time Means DEEE-Fense

   by Al McMordie - 03/18/2012

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 Duke and Michigan).

Don't be surprised to see a lot more fierce defensive games with so much on the line now. Take a look at little Lehigh stunning Duke, 75-70. How did they do it? The first thing that stands out is defense, holding Duke to 41% shooting, including just 6 of 26 from long range. Duke’s defense wasn’t that bad, either, allowing 42% shooting and Lehigh was only 6 of 19 from long range. Throw in 12 missed free throws by Lehigh and Duke certainly had their chances, but the Lehigh defense was the difference.

Should that intense defense surprise anyone? Well let’s see: Lehigh was No. 3 in the Patriot League in points allowed (65 ppg), second in field goal shooting defense (41.5%) and third in three-point defense allowing just 32.4%. There’s your answer, they’ve been been doing it all year. You say, “But wait a minute. They lost 90-81 to Michigan State in their only step-up game.” True, but Michigan State shot just 40% for the game and Lehigh lead 38-35 at the half.

"I told our team the other day that they were pretty good," Tom Izzo said of Lehigh. "They were a little better than I thought." And Michigan State failed to cover as 15-point chalk.

How did Ohio upset Michigan? By allowing 49.7% shooting and 30% from beyond the arc. A year ago Morehead State only shot 36% against Louisville, 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 them by getting beat by Butler, 71-70, a team that used its defense to get all the way to the title game for the second straight year. It’s March, it happens!

The big story two years 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 Northern Iowa, 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 they 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 the 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.

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 tourney game they shut down Georgia, 74-57, in an SEC tournament 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, allowing 57 points and 36% shooting, reminiscent of their 2006 run to the Final Four, which was also all about defense.

Eight 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! You don’t believe me? Just as Duke and Michigan! Good luck, as always....Al McMordie.

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