March Madness is still a long way into the future, but the defenses that proverbially win championships in college basketball are already flexing their muscles. Although perennial standouts such as Virginia are dominating yet again, there are also some unexpected faces at the top of the list of shutdown teams.
One of the most surprising is San Diego State, a program recovering from severe graduation losses after playing good but unremarkable D a season ago. Now, behind a re-energized Xavier Thames, the Aztecs have been one of the toughest teams to score against in all of college hoops.
Read on for a closer look at Steve Fisher’s program, along with the rest of the 10 most impressive defenses from around the country after nearly six weeks of college hoops action.
Note: the national rankings included in this article do not incorporate any results from Wednesday's games.
The Rams’ renowned Havoc press isn’t as reliable as it’s been in some years, a fact highlighted by the 82 points per game they’ve allowed in their three losses. However, when it works, it’s still the toughest full-court assault in the country.
VCU tops the national rankings in steals with 12.3 per game, nearly a full takeaway better than second-place UCLA.
The ringleader, unsurprisingly, has been new starting point guard Briante Weber, who stands second nationally with 3.8 thefts a night by himself after serving as a super-sub in his first two seasons.
Iowa’s sensational offense, with its 88.9 points per game, has overshadowed an impressive start for the Hawkeyes on D.
Although they’ve surrendered a couple of ugly point totals in losses to Villanova and Iowa State, Fran McCaffery’s charges are holding opponents to 36.9 percent shooting, good for seventh in the country.
The heroes for Iowa in the early going have been a bit of a surprise, with junior center Gabriel Olaseni nearly doubling his career high at 1.9 blocks per game, while Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff adds 1.4.
Most remarkable of all, Roy Devyn Marble has blossomed on defense as a senior, more than doubling last year’s mark by grabbing 2.3 steals a night.
Red Storm sophomore Chris Obekpa still can’t score to save his life, but he’s picked up right where he left off defensively.
The 6’9” center finished second to Nerlens Noel in blocks per game a year ago, and with Noel gone, he’s topping those charts at 5.2 rejections a night in 2013-14.
Led by Obekpa’s rim-protecting heroics, St. John’s leads the nation by swatting 9.9 shots per contest as a team (compared to 8.0 for second-place Green Bay).
That success has also helped the Red Storm hold their opponents to 38 percent shooting, tied with former conference rival UConn for 23rd in the country.
When Georgetown opened the year by allowing 82 points to Oregon, it looked like the Hoyas defense was going to miss Otto Porter Jr. even more than expected.
Georgetown’s scoring D still hasn’t recovered from that bad start—even with two sub-50-point games on its record—but John Thompson III’s squad still earns a place here with its ability to shut down opposing shooters.
The Hoyas are holding opponents to 36.7 percent accuracy from the floor, the sixth-best mark in the country.
Length is playing a major role in that success, with 6’5” Jabril Trawick on the wing and a mammoth frontcourt featuring 6’8” Nate Lubick, 6’10” Joshua Smith and 6’9” reserve Mikael Hopkins.
A couple of early losses to ranked foes have kept the Billikens off the national radar this fall, but last season’s Atlantic 10 champs are still playing the same brutal defense that earned them a No. 4 seed in March.
SLU is allowing a mere 57.8 points per game this season, putting Jim Crews’ charges in sixth place nationally in that category.
Just like last year, it’s been a team effort rather than individual dominance that’s kept St. Louis on top. Five different Billikens are averaging at least one steal per game, from 6’0” shooting guard Mike McCall Jr. to 6’11” center Rob Loe.
The simple fact that the Aztecs have climbed into the Top 25 while placing 325th nationally in assists (and 170th in scoring) says a lot about their defense already.
Of course, Steve Fisher’s D speaks for itself, too, holding opponents to 58.6 points per game (seventh in the country) and .378 shooting (17th).
As with everything else on this team, the defensive lockdown starts with senior guard Xavier Thames, who’s averaging 1.5 steals per game.
His top sidekicks include long, lean sophomores Winston Shepard (1.3 steals a night) and Skylar Spencer (2.4 blocks per contest).
With all the big bodies on Arizona’s front line, you might expect shot-blocking to be a specialty of the top-ranked Wildcats.
However, although Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski are both averaging 1.3 rejections per game, Arizona’s defensive success has been much more of a team effort.
On the year, Sean Miller’s team is holding opponents to .375 shooting from the field, 13th-best nationally.
That’s translated into more success on the scoreboard for the Wildcats than for some other teams on this list, as Arizona ranks eighth in the country with 59.1 points allowed per contest.
Even a great defense hasn’t been enough to prevent three early losses for the 298th-best scoring offense in college hoops.
Make no mistake, though: Virginia does have a great defense, anchored down low by experienced forwards including Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey.
The Cavaliers are allowing just 55.1 points per game, the fourth-best figure in the country. Most of what they do doesn’t make it into the box score, but their opponents’ shots also don’t make it into the net: They’re allowing .377 shooting, No. 14 nationally.
Clemson’s 8-2 start isn’t especially impressive, but there’s no mistaking the quality of the defensive numbers the Tigers have put up.
Brad Brownell’s boys lead the country in scoring defense and field-goal defense, rank third in three-point percentage defense and place eighth in blocks per game.
That latter category is the province of junior star K.J. McDaniels, who—at just 6’6”, 200 pounds—is blocking an astounding 3.0 shots per game after swatting 2.1 a night as a sophomore.
He’s getting some serious help from sophomore Landry Nnoko, a 6’10” Cameroonian who’s gone from barely getting off the bench last year to averaging 7.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest as a starter in 2013-14.
Ohio State has been an outstanding defensive team ever since Aaron Craft arrived to run the point four seasons ago.
This year’s edition, though, is the best of the bunch, and not just because of Craft’s 2.4 steals per game or center Amir Williams’ 2.4 blocks a night.
On the year, the Buckeyes rank in the top five nationally in both scoring defense (54.6 points per contest, second only to Clemson) and field-goal defense (.366, fifth).
And, unlike the Tigers (the team at the top of both lists), they’ve stayed unbeaten while playing a fairly tough early schedule for a power-conference team (Wyoming, Maryland, at Marquette).