What does the information age have against defense? In 2011 you can choose any prominent college basketball player and use recruiting Websites to see his high school rankings by class and position, his scholarship offers, and his commitments to and de-commitments from colleges. From his college box scores you can track his shots, assists, rebounds and turnovers. On tempo-free stat sites you can find his per-game and -season offensive efficiency rates and the percentage of offensive possessions he uses (that is, how often the possession ends with his taking a shot). Through advanced video scouting services you can study his offensive tendencies—such as the number of times he shoots over his right or left shoulder in the post and how many points per possession he averages from each of those angles. With minimal effort, you can overwhelm yourself with information.
But there is no site that provides data on how effective that player is on defense. You can learn how efficient his team is, and try to extrapolate, using the frequency at which he grabs defensive rebounds, blocks shots or steals the ball. But on any given possession it's not clear whether he forced a nonblocked miss, harried his man into throwing a pass out-of-bounds or tipped a dribble that fell into the hands of a teammate who was credited with a cheap steal. You don't even know the percentage of defensive possessions in which he was directly involved.
A box score offers only a partial strand of defensive DNA and allows players to earn reputations as stoppers based on anecdotes rather than hard data. In his 2003 book, Basketball on Paper, statistician Dean Oliver—the godfather of the tempo-free movement—proposed formulas for individual offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. His offensive rating (ORating) is now widely used, because it can be determined from play-by-play data. But his defensive rating (DRating), which tracks all the factors leading to a stop, is rarely calculated because it requires charting film of every game and reviewing each possession multiple times to properly assess every defender's contributions and shortcomings.
Using Oliver's methods as a guide, SI conducted the most comprehensive study of individual defense ever done in college basketball. After a national title game in which the champion, UConn, held Butler to a record-low 18.8% shooting from the field, and previewing a season in which a dazzling amount of NBA-level talent is returning, breaking down the defenses of five 2011--12 championship contenders seemed a worthy exercise. (Just who is going to stop all those future pros?) SI analyzed every defensive possession from each team's final 20 games, including the postseason, to the micro level of assigning fractions of blame or credit. The subjects comprised the nation's most efficient defensive team from '10--11 (Florida State); the two preseason title favorites with the majority of their rotations returning (Ohio State and North Carolina); the defending champion Huskies; and, for contrast, one offensive powerhouse that was undone by its struggles on D (Vanderbilt).
The charts in this story include SI's individual DRatings, derived from Oliver's formula and then adjusted for competition. A defensive rating is essentially the answer to the question, If Player X were on the floor for 100 defensive possessions, engaging in his normal rate of plays, how many points would an opposing team score? (Thus, an elite defender will have a rating significantly lower than his team's.) And of those 100 possessions, if Player X is involved in 20, then 20% (DPoss%) of the formula is based on his individual stop percentage (Stop%), and the other 80% is based on the team's average stop percentage. That's why the range within a team's chart is so narrow, why differences of even a few points between players are noteworthy and why DRatings are best used to assess a single team, rather than to compare one team with another.
The stats used to compile the rating are revealing on their own. Field goal percentage against (OppFG%) isn't just a measure of the shots taken in a player's face; it's a ratio of the misses he forced against the baskets for which he was responsible. Turnover percentage (OppTO%) reveals the percentage of a player's defensive possessions in which he forces any kind of turnover. Free throw rate (FTRate) assesses the impact of a player's fouls, by ratio of his free throw attempts allowed versus field goal attempts allowed. (The lower the number, the better.) Defensive rebounding rates—the percentage of possible rebounds a player gets—are referenced when relevant.
The final step was to discuss the results with the subjects, putting the data in the context of the teams' defensive philosophies, personnel and proprietary methods of evaluating defenders. If college basketball analysis has defined eras, box scores represent 1.0, tempo-free stats are 2.0 and defensive enlightenment—when it fully arrives—will be 3.0. These are the first glimmers of light.
For 10 lonely years Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton has been a dog lover without a dog. Until 2001 he always had a boxer, four in a row, all named Chopper. After Chopper IV passed away while Hamilton was coaching the NBA's Wizards, he could not persuade his family to welcome a fifth. He eventually found a way to fill the void.
Hamilton has long insisted that his teams play defense with a junkyard-dog mentality, which means, "If you hear some trouble around the fence, all the dogs run there to protect it," he says. "We don't want you coming in and stealing parts off of our cars." With the Seminoles vying to lead the nation in defensive efficiency for the third straight season, Hamilton expanded on that metaphor by commissioning a special logo—a snarling pit bull he named Stopper—and having it printed on T-shirts that were unveiled last month during Midnight Madness.
It's fitting that Stopper was born at a football school. Says associate head coach Stan Jones, who's worked with Hamilton for 14 seasons, "People will watch a 7--3 football game and talk about the great defense, but why won't they do the same for a 55--52 basketball game? [Hamilton] wanted to put a brand on the success we've been having." The Florida State philosophy is based largely on extending ball pressure beyond the perimeter, aggressive post-fronting and trying to shrink the gaps as much as possible when in help position. Players are given guidelines on how to respond to every situation, and in SI's film study there was no team more disciplined in its rotations, or more committed to preventing post entries. Says the Seminoles' 26-year-old senior center, Bernard James, "I think you could take a bunch of D-II players, teach them our principles, and have them lead the nation in defense."
The team's effectiveness is enhanced when someone like James—who is 6'10", 240 pounds, with a 7'3" wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap—is manning the middle. While forward Chris Singleton, who was drafted 18th by the Wizards in June, was hyped as one of the country's top defenders, SI gave James Florida State's best DRating (83.1).
The Seminoles held opponents to a nation-best 40.0% shooting inside the arc last season. But on shots James defended, opponents made just 27.3%, the lowest such figure in the study. He had an uncanny ability to appear out of an opponent's blind spot to get a block, and had the team's lowest free-throw rate (24.8). Hamilton says James was "the lead junkyard dog at protecting the yard," and it takes discipline to do that without fouling.
James practices how he plays. "Some guys will make their lives easier [in practice] by hand-checking or going over the back, just because there's no one to blow a whistle," he says. "I make it a habit to pretend refs are around all the time." And he knows discipline: Before arriving at Tallahassee Community College in 2008, he did three tours of duty with the Air Force in the Middle East. The last one was at Camp Bucca in Iraq, guarding thousands of suspected terrorists. The assignment didn't cause James too much stress, he says, "because I had a lot of other guards that I could rely on."
The same applies at Florida State. Shooting guard Deividas Dulkys is considered by the coaches to be the team's best positional defender, and he also had the highest opponent turnover percentage (23.3). Dulkys had the third highest defensive rating among the team's starters (85.0), behind James and Singleton, and was tops among the guards. Junior Michael Snaer is the Seminoles' best ball-pressure guard, and 6'8" sophomore Okaro White is a bouncy shot-challenger. As the team's wise elder, James prides himself on reading opponents' body language to anticipate moves, and on reading Hamilton's cues to understand what matters to the coach. That includes taking Stopper seriously. "The [logo] is a little bit cheesy," James says, "but that's coach Ham's baby. When he unveiled it, he had a proud look on his face. It was almost like one of his children was being shown to the world for the first time."
ADJUSTED DEFENSIVE RATING: 87.1
ADJ D RATING
Minimum: 10 minutes per game
Photograph by ANDREW HANCOCK
OVER THE TOP Ohio State doesn't demand much of Sullinger on defense for fear he'll get in foul trouble, but he knows when (and how) to make his presence felt underneath.
GREAT LENGTHS Size matters in the Huskies' funneling D, so they put Oriakhi and his 7'3" wingspan to maximum use during their NCAA championship run.
DENNIS WIERZBICKI/US PRESSWIRE
'NOLE CONTENDERE James didn't have the rep as FSU's top stopper last season, but his opponent field goal percentage was the lowest of any player studied.
SMARTS AND CRAFT Known as a pest since middle school, Craft (in red) forced turnovers with remarkable frequency—especially for a freshman.
TO HEEL AND GONE Rated highly in four statistical areas, the shot-swatting Henson helped North Carolina rank sixth nationally in defensive efficiency.
PRESSURE POINT Napier (left) didn't earn high marks because of his high free throw rate, but he initiated UConn's defense by harassing opponents at half-court.
PULLING OUT THE STOPS If Ezeli (3) recovers from his right knee injury and Taylor (44) gets to guard his own position, the Commodores might finally be able to make critical defensive stands.