After Kentucky spent 2011-12 proving the old adage that “defense wins championships,” it’s only fitting to give some preseason credit to the teams that will make opposing offenses miserable next year. Whether they’re swatting away shots like the record-setting national champs, pressuring the ball or just forcing opponents into low-percentage shots, these squads will be dangerous foes even if their own offenses are having an off night.
One team that’s made its living on defense for the last few seasons—and will continue doing so next year—is Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth squad. VCU plays as tough a pressure defense as any team in the country, and their ability to force turnovers will be vital as they try for a third straight trip to March Madness in their first season in the Atlantic 10.
Read on for more on the Rams and the rest of the country’s 15 toughest teams on the defensive side of the ball for 2012-13.
Fans can be forgiven for taking Delaware State’s numbers with a grain of salt, given that the Hornets won just three games outside the lowly MEAC. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the performance turned in by forwards Marques Oliver and Kendall Gray.
Between them, Oliver (a 6’7” rising senior) and Gray (a 6’10” rising sophomore) averaged a staggering 5.7 blocks per game, helping Delaware State finish fifth in the nation in that category (6.6 per contest as a team).
Even with backcourt pickpocket Jay Threatt lost to graduation, the return of such a physical frontcourt will have the Hornets putting up impressive defensive numbers again in 2012-13.
Although they were lost in the shuffle in a crowded Atlantic 10, UMass made a good case for the value of defense in the postseason by reaching the semifinals of the NIT as a No. 5 seed.
The star of that Minutemen team—by virtually any measure—was 5’9” Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams, whose many remarkable numbers included 2.2 steals per game.
With Williams leading the way, UMass finished in a tie for seventh place in the country with 8.8 steals a game.
In addition to Williams, three other players who nabbed at least one steal per contest are all back for another go-round, meaning that the Minutemen should be at least as dangerous next season.
Although Stephen F. Austin plays in the understandably-ignored Southland Conference, the Lumberjacks’ defensive performance wasn’t just the product of inferior competition.
SFA held Oregon 17 points below its season average in a loss in Eugene and won on the road at UTEP (holding the Miners to a laughable 35 points).
For the year, the Lumberjacks allowed just 54.4 points per contest, the third-best mark in Division I. With four starters (minus center Jereal Scott) and the entire bench returning, Stephen F. Austin should be just as tough to score on next season.
Without question, the loss of uber-athletic Will Barton in the backcourt will take its toll on a team that tied for ninth nationally in field goal defense (38.6) and 10th in blocks (5.6 per game).
Even so, Memphis is still well-stocked with quick, versatile defenders who can pressure the ball and create turnovers in a hurry.
Rising juniors Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson, who combined for three steals per game last year, will lead the effort on the perimeter, but Memphis is also going to be tougher inside in 2012-13.
In addition to Tarik Black (yet another junior-to-be) and his team-high 1.5 blocks per game, the Tigers bring in another mobile 6’8” post presence in touted freshman William “Shaq” Goodwin.
The Drexel Dragons set a school record last year with 29 wins (including a 16-2 CAA mark) in a season in which they averaged just 64.7 points per game.
Obviously, the Drexel defense got the job done, holding opponents to 56.1 points a night—the fifth-lowest total in the country.
The Dragons pulled off that feat on a squad with only one senior, rebounding machine Samme Givens.
Although his departure will be felt, having the rest of the roster come back intact—led by rising junior Frantz Massenat—will make Drexel the heavy favorites in next year’s new-look Colonial Conference.
Although St. Joe’s didn’t have the most impressive showing in terms of its record—20-14, 9-7 in conference play—the Hawks got some outstanding individual performances.
In particular, C.J. Aiken finished in the nation’s top four in blocks (3.6 per game) for the second year in a row.
With the 6’9” Aiken and 6’8” Hofstra transfer Halil Kanacevic both entering their junior seasons, St. Joe’s front line is going to be ferocious once again in 2012-13.
After finishing second in the nation in blocks a year ago (7.2 per game), and with all five starters back, the Hawks are well-positioned to turn that defensive prowess into a few more victories this time around.
After a rare visit to the Top 25 in 2011-12, Harvard couldn’t get the job done in March as a No. 12 seed facing a loaded Vanderbilt team. Fans expecting the Crimson to sink meekly back into obscurity, however, are in for a disappointing season.
Three starters return from last year’s fourth-best scoring defense (55.6 points per game), including ballhawking point guard Brandyn Curry (1.6 steals a night) and sharpshooting backcourt mate Laurent Rivard (pictured).
6’7” rising sophomore Steve Moundou-Missi should fill in admirably for departing PF Keith Wright and help Harvard secure another Ivy League title with little trouble.
Only one team in the country finished in the top 10 nationally for both scoring defense and field goal defense, and it wasn’t NCAA champion Kentucky.
Unheralded South Florida, whose offense was so awful that it managed only a No. 12 seed in the Big Dance, tied for ninth in the country with 38.6 percent shooting allowed and placed seventh by holding foes to 56.6 points a night.
The Bulls do lose three members of last season’s seven-man rotation, but this was an ensemble cast a year ago and it will continue to be one.
Point guard Anthony Collins will need to work miracles to earn many more wins with this offense, but when it comes to shutting down the opposition, the Bulls will be able to stand against anyone in the country once again.
The 2012 NCAA Tournament saw most of its Cinderella stories snuffed out quickly, but 13th-seeded Ohio battled into the Sweet 16 before falling to North Carolina in overtime.
D.J. Cooper and company leaned heavily on an opportunistic defense that created 9.4 steals per game (third nationally), with Cooper himself accounting for 2.3 of those.
The 5’11” Cooper, now a rising senior, returns, along with all four other starters from last year’s squad.
After finishing a mere third in the regular-season MAC standings last year, expect the Bobcats to post a much stronger record, and earn a much higher March seed, next season.
The under-acclaimed St. Louis Billikens narrowly missed one of the bigger upsets of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, falling to top-seeded Michigan State by just four points in the Round of 32.
Even without that win, though, Rick Majerus’ squad finished an enviable 26-8 behind a physical defense that limited opponents to 57.6 points per game, eighth-best in the nation.
Losing forward Brian Conklin will hurt, but four other starters return from a team that topped Memphis, Washington and Xavier (twice) a season ago.
Look for a big year out of rising senior Kwamain Mitchell, who led the team with 1.3 steals a night in 2011-12.
Obviously, Kentucky’s dazzling defensive stats from a year ago are largely meaningless, as all the players who had a major part in producing them are off to the NBA.
However, John Calipari’s ability to recruit players with size as well as athleticism (DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis) will once again have the Wildcats in a position to control the paint on both ends of the floor.
The 2012-13 edition of Kentucky will be built around—surprise!—a shot-blocking center who ranks as the nation’s top recruit, 6’10” Nerlens Noel.
By himself, he’d be nearly enough to earn Kentucky a place on this list, but add in recruiting classmates such as 6’5” SG Archie Goodwin and 6’10” Willie Cauley-Stein, and Kentucky should be racking up plenty of blocked shots and defensive rebounds again next season.
Kansas is losing a lot of star power from last year’s national runners-up, but the core of a brilliant defense remains intact.
The Jayhawks tied for third in the country by holding opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field, and that had less to do with the performances of Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson than it did with the effort from some of the team's returning standouts.
Elijah Johnson, who will be taking over leadership duties in the backcourt, led last year’s squad with 1.4 steals a game, and fellow rising senior Travis Releford will also help out in that department.
Of course, the real key to Kansas’ success will be the play of another senior-to-be, seven-footer Jeff Withey, whose defense almost single-handedly stifled Jared Sullinger in the Final Four and who finished with a Big 12-leading 3.6 blocks per game for the year.
Although it couldn’t match 2011’s Final Four run, Virginia Commonwealth opened the 2012 Tournament with another upset by knocking off fifth-seeded Wichita State.
The key to VCU’s postseason success is hardly a secret: Shaka Smart’s much-ballyhooed press racked up 10.5 steals per game to lead the nation.
Five returning Rams averaged at least 1.1 steals a night, so the loss of Bradford Burgess (the team’s only senior) will hardly be crippling.
Rising sophomore Briante Weber, a 6’3” combo guard who led the team in steals despite playing just 18.7 minutes per game, could be a star in the making.
Bo Ryan’s Badger teams have always won with defense above all else, and the 2011-12 edition was no exception. Wisconsin led the nation in scoring defense (53.2 points per game) while finishing 26-10 and making it to yet another Sweet 16.
Star point guard Jordan Taylor is gone, but four other starters from that squad remain in Madison.
Foremost among them is 6’10” center Jared Berggren, a prototypical Ryan big man who blocks 1.7 shots per game (a team high) while shooting .372 from three-point range.
Louisville made the Final Four last season despite ranking 225th in the country in field-goal shooting.
The key reason, of course, was a stifling field-goal defense (.384, tied for sixth in the country) that created fast breaks off the many offensive mistakes opponents were making against the Cardinals.
Two starters from last year’s squad have graduated, but the likely elevation of sixth man Russ Smith (2.2 steals per game) could make the defense even tougher.
Just as vital, shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng (3.2 rejections a night) returns for his junior year to hold down the middle.