Ranking the 10 Best Defensive Minds in College Basketball
The programs that consistently win games, collect conference championships and make deep runs in the NCAA play good defense.
And teams do not consistently play good defense without a head coach that intentionally emphasizes that end of the court.
Here is a ranking of the 10 best defensive minds in college basketball. Each one has a different approach, but they all have teams that do a great job of shutting their opponents down.
Here we go!
10. Mick Cronin (Cincinnati)
Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin works hard to get his teams to have a defensive mindset.
He wants to win games not simply by outscoring opponents, but by shutting them down.
Cronin recruits physical players and coaches them to contest everything: shots, passes, cuts across the lane—you name it, the Bearcats will oppose it—and if his players do not play hard, they don’t play.
Those are the kind of numbers that put the Bearcats in a position to win on a nightly basis, regardless of what is happening on the offensive end.
9. John Thompson III (Georgetown)
John Thompson III has put together a rock-solid nine years at Georgetown by developing well-rounded players who excel at both ends of the court.
The Hoyas are known for their deliberate offense that relies on disciplined passing and orderly ball movement.
Less celebrated is the GU defense.
JT3 makes sure that his squad closes out against three-point shooters.
Two years ago, the Hoyas were the best team in the nation in terms of three-point shooting percentage defense (27.7 percent). This past season, they held their opponents to a stingy 30.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Also in the 2012-13 season, Georgetown was the No. 4 team nationally for their opponents' two-point shooting percentage (41.4 percent) and the No. 5 squad in overall field-goal percentage defense (37.8 percent).
8. Bob Huggins (West Virginia)
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West Virginia’s Bob Huggins has earned a reputation of being an excellent defensive coach over the course of his career.
When he was at Cincinnati, his Bearcats were consistently one of the most ferocious defensive teams in the country. Now, in his return to his alma mater, Huggins continues to crank out teams that bring the action on the defensive end on a nightly basis.
A Huggins coached team takes pleasure in making their opponents uncomfortable. Constantly applying pressure, they deny direct passes, they alter shots and they crash the boards.
The Mountaineers struggled in their first year in the Big 12, going 13-19 overall and 6-12 in conference play. It was the first year since Huggins arrived in Morgantown in 2007 that they did not make it to the NCAA tournament.
Don’t expect that trend to continue for long.
7. Bo Ryan (Wisconsin)
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Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan has had a terrific 12 years as the Badgers head coach.
Since coming to Madison in 2001, UW has won 291 games and made it to the NCAA tournament every year.
One of the reasons Wisconsin has been successful under Ryan is his emphasis on determined man-to-man defense. They make their opponents work for everything that they get.
The Badgers constantly challenge passes and passing lanes, and they do an exceptional job of closing out shooters.
Last season, Wisconsin was super stingy against their opponents three-point shooters, only allowing them to shoot 28.9 percent (No. 8 in the nation) from beyond the arc.
Ryan’s squad scores well when it comes to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics. In 2012-13, they were No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) and No. 7 in effective field-goal percentage.
6. Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth)
Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart is not just one of the best young coaches in college basketball, he’s one of the best coaches in the college game period.
Smart’s Rams have won at least 27 games in each of his four seasons in Richmond. In his second season as head coach (2010-11), Smart’s squad advanced to the Final Four.
VCU’s calling card is their distressing full-court press, appropriately named “Havoc.” No other college basketball team creates the kind of chaos and mayhem that the Ram’s do.
This is not just something that Smart pulls out every now and then. He keeps the Rams consistently in attack mode.
With five players flying around, VCU forces tempo and creates fatigue more effectively than any other college basketball team in recent memory.
5. Rick Pitino (Louisville)
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Louisville’s Rick Pitino believes in applying as much defensive pressure as possible.
The Cardinals are usually on their opponents from the time they leave the locker room.
Off and on throughout the game, Pitino will unleash his full court press, which consistently creates turnovers on the defensive end and transition bucket opportunities on the other end.
En route to the NCAA championship this past year, Louisville was No. 2 in the nation in opponents’ turnovers (18.4 TPG), steals (10.8 SPG) and opponents assist-to-turnover ratio (0.556).
4. John Calipari (Kentucky)
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Kentucky’s John Calipari has been legitimately recognized as a phenomenal recruiter.
One coaching quality that sometimes gets overlooked is his sharp-edged ability to coach up his teams on the defensive end.
UK’s 2012 NCAA Championship team is the perfect example of getting it done through defense.
Calipari’s teams are strong defensively from the inside out.
The Wildcats are first strong in the lane and inside the arc. Even last year, Kentucky was one of the best teams in two-point defense, holding their opponents to 42 percent from the floor (No. 8 in the country).
The fact that Kentucky has been at or near the top of the shot-blocking stats ever since Coach Cal arrived should say something. This coming season will be no different with Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson patrolling the middle.
3. Tom Izzo (Michigan State)
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Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is widely considered to be one of the best coaches in college hoops.
In fact, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman recently polled (Insider subscription required) head coaches about who is “the best X’s and O’s guy” in the business, and Izzo was the “runaway winner.”
His Spartans are known for playing tough, in-your-face defense. They keep the ball out of the lane and force their opponents to take low-percentage shots.
Michigan State seals the deal on defense by winning the battle of the boards. In 2012-13, the Spartans were in the Top 10 in rebounding margin.
When you go to East Lansing, you better be ready to go to war, because Izzo will have his team prepared and the Spartans will battle from start to finish.
2. Jim Boeheim (Syracuse)
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Opponents know when they go up against Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim that they will have to contend with the Orange’s acclaimed 2-3 matchup zone.
Boeheim extends his defense out as much as possible to force other teams to initiate their offense further out than they would prefer.
Syracuse uses length and intentional activity to limit their opponents from getting quality looks. They were the No. 1 team in the nation in blocks percentage (19.3 percent).
The Orange are one of the best teams on an annual basis as far as challenging three-point attempts. In 2012-13, Syracuse was No. 3 in the nation in three-point shooting percentage defense (28.3 percent).
1. Bill Self (Kansas)
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Kansas’ Bill Self is the greatest defensive mind in college basketball.
Self differentiates between being a pressure team and a pressing team. KU is a pressure team.
His Jayhawks generally hold their opponents to a low overall shooting percentage, control the defensive glass and block a fair amount of shots.
In the 2012-13 season, KU was the No. 1 team in the nation in opponents two-point field-goal percentage (39.3 percent), field-goal percentage defense (36.1 percent) and opponents effective field-goal percentage (41.5 percent)
Also this past season, they were No. 2 in the nation in blocked shots (247) and in defensive rebounds (1051).
Bill Self and his staff do an excellent job of recruiting the types of players who will fit into their defensive system. Once on campus, they build strength and skills that will help them execute their strategies.