NCAA Tournament Handicapping: Defensive Efficiency Is Key!

by Power Sports

Before you know it, the NCAA Tournament will be underway. With that in mind, I wanted to discuss a key metric I look at every year when handicapping March Madness (well except 2020). 

Defensive efficiency is key. For those that are unaware, defensive efficiency refers not to the number of points a particular team allows per game, but rather over a given number of possessions. Typically, a team’s defensive efficiency rating is extracted from the number of points it allows per 100 possessions. The site KenPom.com makes even further adjustments and their ratings are the ones I lean on for my own College Basketball picks. 

Looking at efficiency gives you a better “feel” for how a team really plays defense as opposed to simply looking at the number of points they allow per game. Some teams play at much slower tempos and thus there are a fewer number of possessions per game. Therefore, they are likely to give up a lower number of points per game. (Note: if they don’t, that means they are pretty bad defensively!) 

Conversely, if a team is giving up fewer points in a game that has more possessions, then they are a significantly better defensive team. 

Even if you don’t care to understand defensive efficiency, that’s okay. The aforementioned KenPom posts every team’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating and you can view it there. 

The current top 10 teams in defensive efficiency rating (per KenPom) are: Loyola Chicago, Alabama, Memphis, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Baylor, Houston, Wisconsin, Illinois and VCU. Obviously, you’ve got some names on that list that you’d expect to see. Gonzaga and Baylor are both undefeated and the top two teams in the country. Alabama, Tennessee, Houston, Wisconsin and Illinois are all Top 25 teams you’d expect will perform well in the NCAA Tournament.

But there are definitely two names on that list that should jump out to you. First and foremost, you’ve got Loyola Chicago, who is #1 in the entire country in defensive efficiency. The Ramblers are currently ranked in the Top 25, but only projected to be an 8-seed by the “esteemed” Joe Lunardi. In my opinion, this is NOT a team that any #1 seed would want to face in the Round of 32. I would almost certainly take the points with Loyola against any higher seed come tourney time. Remember - they made the Final Four three years ago! 

VCU is another team to keep an eye on. Right now, the Rams are very much a bubble team. But as a likely double digit seed, they’d make for a very live dog in the Round of 64. 

Unfortunately for Memphis, they are currently NOT projected to be a NCAA Tournament team. They’d be a real dark horse (to pull an upset or two, not to win the whole thing obviously) if they were somehow to make the field.

Underdogs with strong defensive efficiency ratings make for strong plays come NCAA Tournament time. On the flip side, favorites with suspect defensive efficiency ratings are vulnerable to getting bounced early. There are likely to be a handful of teams in this year’s Tourney that will get high seeds despite defensive efficiency ratings outside the top 75. They are: Iowa, Ohio State and Villanova. Ohio State is even in the running for a #1 seed! I would not pick any of these squads to make it to the Final Four. 

Keep all this in mind when the brackets are released next month. It will help you be a more successful NCAA Tournament bettor. 


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