Historical March Madness trends significantly favor Vols in Sweet 16

COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: Grant Williams #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts with teammates during the second half against the Colgate Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: Grant Williams #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts with teammates during the second half against the Colgate Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

March Madness trends favor the Tennessee Volunteers over the Purdue Boilermakers, Oregon Ducks and Virginia Cavaliers in the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

Defense wins championships…unless it’s March Madness. The most overused cliche in sports, while often true, has the exact opposite effect on college basketball’s biggest stage and the most exciting tournament in sports.

In fact, the opposite is so true that anybody who says it just sounds like that annoying guy who read a conspiracy theory on the Internet and thinks they are well-informed on all the issues. In college, offense wins championships, and that’s a huge benefit for Tennessee basketball.

As the Vols get ready for the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, they are in a bracket that favors them for this very reason. Indisputable data from the stats database of NCAA Team Rankings proves that. Not one team in their region has a top 70 scoring offense, while they are in the top 10, averaging over 80 points a game.

Sure, they sacrifice defense, which is outside of the top 100, while the Virginia Cavaliers are No. 1 in that regard, the Oregon Ducks are No. 11 and the Purdue Boilermakers are in the top 40. But the Vols still allow fewer than 70 points a game. They just don’t live and die by defense. And history shows that’s a good thing.

Look at the programs and coaches historically known for heavily emphasizing defense over anything else. They rarely have March Madness success. By the way, you don’t have to go too far back to know this. Just look at this same UVA program in the Vols’ bracket.

Virginia has built a reputation for focusing heavily on defense in its 10 years under head coach Tony Bennett. They’ve had the No. 1 defense in the nation for three straight years, including this year and five of the past six years. Meanwhile, their defense has been in the top two each of the last six years, and it’s been in the top 5 each of the last eight years.

Anybody remember what happened to them last year? They became the first No. 1 seed in history to lose to a No. 16 seed. This is only their third trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament under Bennett, and they’ve only made it to the Elite Eight once. There are no Final Fours.

That’s despite the fact that they have been the No. 1 seed in the Big Dance three times and the No. 2 seed another time. All four of those times, they lost to a lower seed, including a No. 10 seed, a No. 7 seed and a No. 4 seed. We already mentioned the loss to the No. 16 seed.

Then there’s Purdue, who will face the Vols Thursday. This program actually infamous for lack of NCAA Tournament success over the past four decades. Hall of Fame head coach Gene Keady, who was a legend there, never made it past the Elite Eight. He’s infamous for NCAA Tournament flameouts. Matt Painter, a protege of his, has picked up that trend and still has yet to get past the Sweet 16.

Other schools with a focus on defense have had this issue as well. The Pittsburgh Panthers under Jamie Dixon made a name for themselves as a defense-first team. But they only made it past the first weekend three times in 10 NCAA Tournament trips and never made the Final Four.

In fact, they only had one win during his time as a lower seed in the tournament, and that was then they were grossly under-seeded as a No. 9 seed and faced a grossly over-seeded No. 8 Colorado Buffaloes team in 2014. Meanwhile, six of their 10 NCAA Tournament losses under Dixon came when they were the higher seed, including 2006, when they lost to No. 13 seed Bradley as the No. 5 seed, and 2011, when they lost to No. 8 seed Butler as a No. 1 seed.

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Simply put, a team heavy defensive focus doesn’t make noise in March Madness. And we don’t just have anecdotal evidence for that either. Look at al the NCAA Tournaments played since the beginning of this century.

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Of the 19 champions, 15 had an offense that ranked higher than their defense. In fact, 18 of those 19 had a top 100 overall offense, 16 had a top 50 offense, 15 had a top 30 offense, 13 had a top 20 offense nine had a top 10 offense, six had a top 5 offense and two had the No. 1 offense (the Villanova Wildcats in 2018 and the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2005). In fact, four of the last 10 national champions had top 10 offenses, and two had top 5 offenses.

Contrast that with the defenses. Only 10 of the 19 champions had a top 50 defense. Six had a top 30 defense, three had a top 20 defense, and only one had a top 10 defense: the Michigan State Spartans came in at No. 8, and they were the first team this century to win a title. Meanwhile, six defenses were outside of the top 100, and two were outside of the top 200.

So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s more teams with top 10 offenses in the last 10 years to win a title than teams with top 20 defenses since the beginning of this century. In fact, three of the last four national champions had top 10 offenses, including last year’s Villanova team, who led the nation in scoring.

There’s a reason for this, by the way. If a team gets red-hot shooting the ball, which is bound to happen at one point in a tournament that requires a team to win six games, there’s nothing any great defense can do. They have to match it with offense, and if they can’t they’re done.

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Taking all this into account, the Tennessee Vols and Rick Barnes have to be thrilled about their March Madness situation. Their offense can match any red-hot shooting team. It just did that with the Colgate Raiders in their first game. But they are also capable of getting red-hot. And Purdue nor Virginia really have the offense to match that if they do. Oregon might, but they shouldn’t be good enough to compete this year as a No. 12 seed. So everything favors Rocky Top.