Ranking the Top 20 Defensive Stoppers in College Basketball in 2014-15

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

Ranking the Top 20 Defensive Stoppers in College Basketball in 2014-15

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Nearly every offensive feat a college basketball player can accomplish, for good or for ill, can be quantified on the scoresheet. Shots missed and made, dimes dropped, turnovers committedthey all have their own column.

    Defensive stops are a bit harder to enumerate. Unless a player records a steal, block or defensive reboundwhich is just as valid as a steal, since both by definition end the opposing team's possessiona stop is often treated as a team accomplishment more than an individual one.

    Still, some players draw plenty of notice for their defensive playmaking abilities. Those are the players we come to praise in this piece. After all, scoring points is a wonderful pursuit, but keeping them off the other team's side of the scoreboard is just as essential to winning.

    Some of our stoppers are dangerous on-ball defenders and some protect the rim. Others are capable of combining one or both of these skills with a nose for the defensive glass. All are primary keys to their teams' defensive efforts in the 2014-15 season.

    Note: Only returning players were considered for this piece, so don't ask where Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson are.

    All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.

    All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

    School records courtesy of individual institutions' media guides.

20. Kenneth "Speedy" Smith, Louisiana Tech

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    Victor Calzada/Associated Press

    Louisiana Tech's defense is a poor man's version of VCU's "Havoc." The Bulldogs force lots of turnovers and occasionally concede the defensive glass, but they aren't as prone to surrendering easy baskets thanks to overpursuit.

    That makes Tech's point guard, senior Kenneth "Speedy" Smith, the Gulf Coast version of VCU pest Briante Weber (more on him in a bit).

    Smith lit up Conference USA in Tech's maiden voyage after bailing from the sinking Western Athletic Conference. He led the league and ranked 10th nationally at 2.5 steals per game, posting 14 or more games of three or more thefts. Smith set a school record with eight steals against Middle Tennessee in February, his fifth career game of six or more takeaways.

    For the record, Tech's media guide lists only 14 such games in school history, not counting Smith's two last season. Mid-1980s guard Willie Bland is the only other player with more than one six-strip game.

    Smith's third steal this season will set the new all-time Tech record, and a 61-swipe season will give him the senior class record, the only other mark he doesn't yet hold.

    Speedy's hands more than live up to his nickname. His continued victimization of opposing ball-handlers is essential to Tech's chances of reaching its first NCAA tournament since 1991.

19. Chris Jones, Louisville

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    It was a Rick Pitino assistant, back in the coach's Providence days, who coined the phrase "mother-in-law defense." It was a euphemism for a team that constantly pressured and harassed opponents, digging for every turnover it can pry loose.

    Today, Pitino's Louisville Cardinals don't do things much differently. The Cards ranked second only to VCU in both turnover percentage and steal percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. Junior college transfer Chris Jones occasionally struggled on the offensive end, but he took to Pitino's pressing defense like a duck to water.

    Individually, Pomeroy ranked Jones eighth nationally in steal percentage, ripping 2.2 swipes per game to lead the American Athletic Conference. That average would have also paced the ACC, where the Cardinals will make their home this season.

    Even when Jones wasn't absconding with the ball like a repo man making off with a deadbeat's car in the middle of the night, he helped make life miserable for even the game's superstars. Cincinnati All-American Sean Kilpatrick shot a combined 16-of-44 with eight turnovers over his two games against the Cards, while UConn's Shabazz Napier went 6-of-25 with seven giveaways.

    Louisville took three of the four games.

    Without Russ Smith, Jones will run with sophomore Terry Rozier, whose game is not all that dissimilar from the departed Cardinal icon. Look for yet another small Cardinal backcourt to cause big stress to opposing guards.

18. Richaun Holmes, Bowling Green

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Bowling Green forward Richaun Holmes has set the school's career record for blocked shots in only two seasons. As his offensive role expanded last year, his understanding of when to attack the shooter did the same, and the result was a pleasant decrease in whistles from those pesky referees.

    Holmes led the MAC in swats as a junior after coming in third during his debut season out of Moraine Valley Junior College. While his block percentage dipped from 13.4 to 9.5 last year, he also shaved off nearly a foul per 40 minutes, dropping from 4.4 to 3.5.

    As a point of comparison, most of the nation's top shot-blockerssuch as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, Minnesota's Elliott Eliason and Purdue's A.J. Hammonshover in the 4.5 to 5.0 fouls per 40 range. Holmes was already just below that last season, when he was stuffing shooters at a truly elite rate.

    Holmes has had his moments against major competition, including a superb effort against Xavier last December (26 PTS, 9 REB, 5 BLK). He's slogged through only nine games without a swat in two seasons, and the Falcons are 14-13 over that span when he blocks at least three attempts.

17. Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Richmond

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Richmond forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa has his difficulties on the offensive end, but he's capable of making up for it when opponents come at him.

    Similar to Richaun Holmes, Ododa is a potent shot-blocker who's able to avoid crippling foul trouble. He finished second in the Atlantic 10 with 2.4 BPG without fouling out of any game after November 19.

    Ododa's 9.6 block rate was slightly down from his freshman year, butagain, like Holmeshe also trimmed his fouls per 40 by nearly one full point, from 4.8 to 4.0.

    Minnesota struggled to hit its two-point shots against Ododa and the Spiders last November, making only 42.9 percent inside the arcand that was with 16 offensive rebounds to its credit. Ododa carded nine points, eight boards and two blocks that night, holding Gopher big man Elliott Eliason scoreless on only one shot.

    The Gopher game was a quiet night, however, compared with Ododa's January effort against eventual Elite Eight participant Dayton. The Flyers' loss was part of their ugly 1-5 conference start, and Ododa more than filled his role with 11 points, seven rebounds and six swats.

16. Rayvonte Rice, Illinois

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    No one should be surprised to read that Ohio State played the most efficient defense in the Big Ten last season according to Pomeroy. The Illinois Fighting Illini placing as runners-up might be somewhat startling, however, since they could only parlay that stinginess11th in America against the nation's 16th-toughest schedule, by the wayinto an NIT berth.

    Wing Rayvonte Rice was often the Illini's only reliable scorer, and he was also a potent piece of that rugged defense. Rice ranked in the Big Ten's top eight in steals per game (sixth, 1.6), steal percentage (seventh, 3.2), defensive rating (eighth, 96.5) and defensive Win Shares (fourth, 2.3).

    The Illini started out hot in their nonconference schedule, with wins over programs such as UNLV and Missouri. Rice was a key to holding the Rebels scoreless over the final four-plus minutes as the Illini rallied, and he also helped hold Mizzou star Jabari Brown to 3-of-11 shooting in the Braggin' Rights victory.

    Similar to the UNLV game, Illinois needed a late rally to survive Boston University in the first round of the NIT. A Rice steal and three-point play with 2:07 left cut the Terriers' lead to one point in a game that Rice would not let his team give away.

    Rice was frequently in the right place at the right time, even if his teammates weren't always able to take advantage. If the senior swingman gets some support this season, expect Illinois to return to the other, bigger tournament.

15. Karrington Ward, Eastern Michigan

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Raise your hand if you knew Eastern Michigan was one of the nation's most dominant defensive teams last season. And don't lie.

    Guided by longtime Jim Boeheim assistant Rob Murphy, the Eagles play a 2-3 zone that Murphy learned at the feet of the master.

    That defense ranked 11th or better in the nation last season in a whopping five different percentages that Ken Pomeroy tracks. Forward Karrington Ward, much like Rayvonte Rice, was often EMU's lone scoring threat, but he found plenty of time to make defensive plays as well.

    Ward ranked eighth in the MAC in steals and 10th in defensive rebounding percentage, numbers that don't scream off the page and set your eyeballs on fire. He did, however, rank among the top 20 nationally in defensive Win Shares and just outside that elite club in defensive rating.

    Ward was often free to crash the defensive glass while bigs Da'Shonte Riley and Glenn Bryant attacked shooters looking for blocks. Without the presence those two brought, we may see more of the aggression that helped Ward average 3.5 steals per game as a freshman at Kankakee Community College.

    Much of the press surrounding Eastern's defense swirled around Riley, the MAC Defensive Player of the Yearand incidentally one of Murphy's former pupils at Syracuse. Look for Ward to inherit a large amount of the playmaking burden Riley and Bryant leave behind.

14. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Much like Virginia or Arizona, Louisville plays a defensive system that simply works when coach Rick Pitino finds the right athletes to run it. The entire lineup can produce stopper-esque moments when needed.

    We've already discussed Chris Jones, but let's shift focus inside to his burly teammate, power forward Montrezl Harrell.

    Harrell is that rare beast, a player who's more intent on making his team a defensive force than on getting his points.

    “We gotta be that top defensive team,” Harrell said to Basketball Insiders' Yannis Koutroupis at the Adidas Nations camp in Long Beach, California. “Offensively, we have guys who can score the ball at every position on the floor. We gotta be that defensive standout team, that team that [makes others say], ‘Hey it’s hard to score on Louisville.'"

    Harrell certainly did his part as a sophomore, breaking into the starting lineup with a vengeance after serving an apprenticeshipand winning a national titlebehind Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. All he did was finish third in the American in defensive rebounds, seventh in blocks and chip in a steal per game for good measure.

    As athletic and energetic as Harrell is, there's a sense that more is possible, even as the Cards prepare to take a step up in competition from the AAC to the ACC. His last recorded wingspan and standing reach measurements came at a 2013 USA Basketball camp, and even then they measured 7'3" and 8'11" respectively according to DraftExpress.

    One more year under Rick Pitino will make Harrell an even more proficient defender, putting him right back in NBA lottery projectionsa place he's already been this year before deciding to return.

13. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Alan Williams has absolutely crushed the Big West for two years, yet has no NCAA tournament trip to show for it. He's finished in the conference's top four in scoring twice, blocks three times and boasts two rebounding titlesranking second in the nation in 2013-14 at 11.5 RPG. He even cracked the BWC top 10 in steals last season.

    Even when Williams was a freshman playing only 17.1 minutes per game, he still ripped enough boards and blocks to appear on the Big West leaderboards. He's remained consistent throughout his career, staying in the vicinity of 15 rebounds and three blocks per 40 minutes.

    Now, as a senior, Williams is the best player in America you've never seen play. The one thing that lets him down as an elite defender is his own conditioning. When Williams gets winded, he can take plays off to save his energy for the offensive end. He can also find himself in foul trouble when he stops moving his feet and plays defense with his hands.

    There's a very short list of players over the past four seasons who've carded a 9.0 block percentage and a 27.0 defensive rebounding rate in the same campaign. Joel Embiid is by far the most recognizable name. Kenyatta Smith from Harvard has put in some NCAA tournament time. But Williams is the only player to accomplish that double twice.

    Williams is essentially the only man whom UC-Santa Barbara's opponents have to game plan for, yet he still routinely crunches numbers and makes stops.

12. Elliott Eliason, Minnesota

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Minnesota center Elliott Eliason will never be an All-Big Ten selection, but All-Defensive team? Absolutely.

    Marcus Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press outed Eliason's goal of winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, a mere pipe dream in a conference that included Aaron Craft of Ohio State. With Craft gone this season, Eliason becomes a very large factor in a much more open race.

    "It's just about going into every game knowing you can compete against these guys," Eliason told Fuller about his confidence level after putting in solid work against bigs like Purdue's A.J. Hammons and Arkansas' Bobby Portis early last season.

    As Eliason has gained experience, his defensive rebounding and shot-blocking have improved, while he's cut his fouls per 40 down to a manageable 5.0. He finished second in the Big Tenand top 40 nationally per Pomeroyin both defensive rebound percentage and block percentage.

    Eliason has a bit more room to be aggressive, since fellow rising senior Mo Walker provides highly capable support in the post. Still, he has to avoid foul trouble if the Gophers are to make their first NCAA tournament trip under coach Richard Pitino. Last year, Minnesota lost six of the eight Big Ten games in which Eliason racked up four or five fouls.

    Eliason crushed St. Mary's in the NIT, ripping eight rebounds, blocking seven shots and holding the Gaels' ace big man Brad Waldow to 1-of-7 shooting. While doing all that, the Gopher giant didn't even attempt a shot of his own, a vivid illustration of where his priorities lie.

11. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

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    JOHN MILLER/Associated Press

    Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson didn't post any explosive numbers as a freshman. He simply fit into the Wildcats' defensive system and worked harder on that end of the court than practically anyone in the nation.

    The 6'7" Hollis-Jefferson is a tremendous athlete who can defend nearly any player Arizona coach Sean Miller needs him to. If there is one issue with RHJ's defensive abilities, it's that he'll need to add some muscle to body up on bigger forwards and low-end centers.

    Make no mistake, Hollis-Jefferson can get up to disrupt when an opponent lines up a shot. His 4.3 block percentage and 1.1 rejections per game both ranked in the Pac-12's top 10. Despite playing only 25.3 minutes per gamesixth on the teamhe led the Wildcats in total swats, blocking more shots than lottery pick Aaron Gordon and 7'0" center Kaleb Tarczewski.

    RHJ made the choice to come back to school in an effort to improve his offensive skill set, but his defense is already on point. The NBA is still waiting, and after a potential All-Pac-12 season, the call may be too attractive to resist again.

10. Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Remember that a defensive rebound, by its very definition, equals a stop. After all, the defense recovering a missed shot ends the opponent's possession.

    Scroll down the list of the ACC's top defensive rebounders in 2013-14, and most of the names are, unsurprisingly, big men. Jabari Parker, Akil Mitchell, Talib Zanna, Daniel Millerbut there in a very respectable eighth place is 6'5" Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon.

    Brogdon doesn't snag boards with a tremendous vertical leap, relying more on strength and a large pair of paws. “He’s one of the best guard rebounders that I’ve seen,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said to Mark Giannotto of The Washington Post.

    Brogdon's solid frame makes him a difficult foe for shorter shooting guards or skinnier wings. He helped hold Duke scorers Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon to a combined 5-of-18 shooting in the ACC tournament final. North Carolina's Marcus Paige managed only nine points on 4-of-14 from the floor.

    It's hard to single out one particular player as a stopper in Virginia's stifling pack-line defense, but we'll go with the guy who led last year's team in steals and is the top returning defensive rebounder. Brogdon ended more possessions last year than Father Jedediah Mayii.

9. Alex Caruso, Texas A&M

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Sports-Reference lists only four players returning for the 2014-15 college basketball season after posting both a steal percentage of 4.0 or greater and a block percentage of at least 3.3. Three of the four are on this list, and the first one is a rapidly improving point guard for Texas A&M.

    Junior Alex Caruso ripped 15 steals in the first four games of last season, and we all yawned because the competition was weak. So, he started off the SEC schedule with a pair of four-theft nights against Arkansas and Tennessee. Finally, he finished strong with 20 takeaways in his final seven games, a 2.9 average.

    The 6'5" Caruso is a difficult matchup for most point guards. Long enough to disturb passing lanes and athletic enough to contest any shot, he's one of the few players who should be considered a lock for the SEC's All-Defensive team.

    To provide a little perspective on Caruso's season, that 3.3 block percentage was better than the one posted by 6'9", 244-pound teammate Kourtney Roberson, who led the Aggies in rebounding.

    While Caruso's not going to challenge Willie Cauley-Stein or Jordan Mickey for SEC shot-blocking supremacy, he'll make just enough plays to keep the Aggies alive in every game.

8. Jordan Fouse, Green Bay

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    MATTHEW LUDTKE/Associated Press

    Green Bay forward Jordan Fouse is the second member of our 4.0/3.3 club alluded to on the previous page. He was also the closest to playing in last season's NCAA tournament, as the Phoenix were snubbed for an at-large bid following an upset loss to Milwaukee in the Horizon League semifinals.

    Fouse finished in the HL's top five in each of the defensive Triple Crown categories: third in steals, fourth in blocks and fifth in defensive rebounds. That impressive triplethough not as impressive as his freshman year's top-three sweepearned him his second Horizon All-Defensive team selection in as many years.

    No player in school history has blocked more shots in a season than Fouse has in either of his first two campaignsother than Fouse's just-graduated teammate, seven-footer Alec Brown, that is. Also, this past season's 68 steals set the new school record.

    With Brown gone, the 6'7", 225-pound Fouse has a lot more pressure on him to lead the defense. His opportunities to make defensive plays have been aided by opponents going out of their way to avoid Brown. Of course, like any great defender, Fouse is ready to put heart and soul into his craft.

    “I like playing defense more than offense,” Fouse said to Gery Woelfel of the Racine (Wis.) Journal-Times. "Defense was very important (in high school). That was instilled in me right from the beginning.”

    Green Bay coach Brian Wardle enjoys the use of Fouse's physical giftswhich are plentifulbut touts the rising junior's mental prowess as his greatest asset.

    “He has a great basketball mind," Wardle told Woelfel. "When he’s on the court, he’s always thinking ahead and knows what’s coming. ... If he sees something on the court, he’s probably right."

7. Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    The Mountain West Conference's glamour programs are New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State. Most casual observers barely have time to notice what those programs are up to, never mind checking out the team from the relative basketball wilderness of Wyoming.

    This year, however, the MWC's best playerhealth willingmay reside in Wyoming. Larry Nance Jr. blossomed from a sidekick to All-MWC forward Leonard Washington to a star in 2013-14. Not even a February ACL tear could convince the league's coaches not to put him on both the All-Defensive and all-conference first teams.

    Nance posted his second straight season of top-10 conference finishes in defensive rebounds and steals, while also making up for Washington's departure as a rim protector. Nance swatted 2.1 shots per game to rank fourth in the league. His block, steal and defensive rebound percentages were all sixth or better in the conference.

    Attention to defense certainly runs in the family. Larry Nance Sr. was a three-time NBA All-Defensive selection with the Cleveland Cavaliers and swatted 2.2 shots per game in his lengthy professional career.

    The younger Nance (shorter but heavier than his father at 6'8" and 225 pounds) has to prove that he can regain the explosiveness that he was showing last season. Coach Larry Shyatt told CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein that he expects Nance to be back for the start of fall practice. Since that start is roughly a month away now, the anticipation is building in Laramie.

6. T.J. McConnell, Arizona

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    If not for that accursed East Coast bias, Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell would have drawn mentions in all the same sentences as Ohio State's Aaron Craft. Both are physical, aggressive on-ball defenders capable of getting into dribbles and passing lanes even after following opponents all over the court and around numerous screens.

    McConnell was an All-Atlantic 10 defensive team selection as a sophomore at Duquesne. Just to show it wasn't a function of low competition, he went ahead and made the same team in the Pac-12. His 1.7 steals per game were more than a full swipe less than his averages in both years as a Duke, but Arizona didn't need to gamble for turnovers.

    The Wildcats played the most efficient defense in America according to Pomeroy, despite ranking in the 110s in turnover rate and the 160s in steal percentage. Arizona simply contested everything, forced bad shots and cleaned up the glass afterward.

    McConnell didn't worry much about scoring, choosing instead to station himself on the defensive end once a teammate put up a shot. In doing so, he effectively shut off opponents' transition games. According to Hoop-Math.com, only Georgia Southern allowed a lower percentage of opponents' shots in transitiondefined as less than 10 seconds between the start of a trip and its first shot.

    UA's floor general isn't spectacular, and at 6'1" and 195 pounds, he doesn't look fearsome getting off the bus. But get him on the court, and he's trouble. If coach Sean Miller would allow him to be a bit more aggressive, he could mess around and get a triple-double.

5. Shannon Scott, Ohio State

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Having a dominant defensive point guard is like a football team having a shutdown cornerback. Every play becomes a chess match between that standout defender and the opposing team's signal-caller.

    For the past three years, Ohio State has had two such stoppers. Now that Aaron Craft has moved on, Shannon Scott gets his turn in the No. 1 role.

    Scott is an even more aggressive defender than Craft, if such a thing could be possible. Scott was the better of the two in steal percentage in each of the past two seasons, ranking in Pomeroy's national top 10 both years.

    The two couldn't play together as often as Buckeyes coach Thad Matta would have liked, since his team struggled to score on the best of days. The February 15 win over Illinois may have been the offense's nadir (48 points), but the Buckeyes held the Illini to a sickly 39 of their own. Illinois shot 28.3 percent and only turned the ball over 13 times, but five of those came on Scott steals.

    Make no mistake, Ohio State will still play killer defense in 2014-15. Opposing point guards will simply be seeing a different face in their nightmares.

4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Only two players in America combined for a 3.0-plus steal percentage and a block percentage north of 10.0 in 20-plus minutes per game last year. One was Cincinnati enforcer Justin Jackson, who exhausted his eligibility. The other was Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, who likely would have been an NBA lottery pick if not for an injury suffered in the NCAA tournament.

    (For the record, only Cauley-Stein's former teammate Nerlens Noel and Savannah State's Jyles Smith have accomplished the above since Sports-Reference began tracking advanced metrics in the 2009-10 season.)

    Cauley-Stein tied for sixth nationally with 106 blocks, a total that tied the aforementioned Noel for the second-highest season figure in UK history. Another 103 will break Jamaal Magloire's career record.

    Adding 1.2 steals per game to his 2.9 blocks, though, gives a greater picture of Cauley-Stein's rare abilities on the defensive end. His length and athleticism are unparalleled among collegiate 7-footers, and they're the traits that keep him on the NBA's radar even though he's now entering his junior season.

    “An ankle sprain, it’s nothing,” a former NBA executive told SNY.tv's Adam Zagoria after Cauley-Stein was hurt in March. “He will be a top-20 pick regardless of him playing another college game. He could be a lottery pick if he stayed another year at Kentucky.”

    He is, and with another season like last year's, he probably will be.

3. Markus Kennedy, SMU

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    Fred Beckham/Associated Press

    As a team, SMU played some very good defense last season. The Mustangs' 94.7 defensive rating ranked 17th in America per KenPom. However, some great defensive teams take their cues from one particular stopper, and for coach Larry Brown's team, that stopper was forward Markus Kennedy.

    The burly Kennedy (6'9", 245 pounds) was an All-AAC second-team selection after ranking ninth or better in defensive rebounds, steals and blocks. We must, however, go a little next-level to really appreciate the impact the Villanova transfer had on SMU's defensive fortunes.

    Pomeroy doesn't attempt to compute players' individual defensive ratings, but Sports-Reference does. Thanks to Pomeroy's adjustments for competition and tempo, there are slight differences in his team ratings and S-R's.

    That said, compare a few of our other noteworthy stoppers' personal defensive ratings with their teams' figures, as computed by S-R. (Remember: Defensive Rating=points allowed per 100 possessions.)

    PlayerTeamPlyr. DRTeam DRDifference
    No. 1SPOILER85.691.55.9
    FouseGreen Bay88.994.45.5
    No. 2SPOILER90.295.35.1
    ScottOhio St.

    I lack sufficient information and motivation to tabulate SMU's defensive efficiency without Kennedy on the floor, but the difference with him in the game is absolutely staggering. His personal rating was a full six points better than the next best Mustang defender.

    Kennedy and Nic Moore are both juniors this season, and former McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier is still waiting to break out. So, if you're one who wrote the Mustangs off when Emmanuel Mudiay decamped for China, your departure from the bandwagon is highly premature.

2. Delon Wright, Utah

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    And now we come to the third member of that 4.0/3.3 club we alluded to back on the Alex Caruso slide. Add a 17.0 defensive rebounding percentage to our parameters, and the club shrivels to one memberUtah guard Delon Wright.

    (SPOILER ALERT: If you're looking for Denzel Livingston, you can stop. Can't place him this high after that pitiful schedule Incarnate Word played last season.)

    Wright ranked second in the Pac-12 in steals and sixth in blocks, the only power-conference player to finish in the top 10 in both categories. He makes plays without the benefit of a gambling defense like VCU's (spoiler alert part deux?) and he doesn't possess a 6'11" wingspan like a Markus Kennedy.

    In fact, Wright's 6'6.5" wingspan is relatively small for a 6'5" player. Compare it to others in DraftExpress' exhaustive database, and Wright's dimensions seem disappointing. As an example, former Florida State guard Ian Miller has a 6'6.75" span on a 6'2.5" frame. Incoming Indiana freshman James Blackmon was measured at 6'3" with a 6'8.5" wingspan.

    Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak mitigates any physical shortcomings by matching Wright up against point guards, many of whom aren't used to dealing with 6'5" athletes, no matter how long or short their arms. While Wright's anatomy may not be prototypical for his size, his mental abilities are top-notch. Anticipation and quickness make his plays for him.

    John Pudner of ValueAddBasketball.com projects Wright as the nation's best player this coming season, and the Utes' star will certainly appear on this writer's All-American first team. If you do take some time to watch Utah play this season (set the DVR for the Utes vs. Wichita State on Dec. 3), don't go get a drink when Utah's on defense. Wright's as likely to show you something on that end as the other.

1. Briante Weber, VCU

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Fans who got sick of hearing about Aaron Craft for the last four years should be glad VCU isn't on ESPN more often. Otherwise, those folks would compound their Craft suffering with a severe case of Briante Weber fatigue.

    Entering his senior season, Weber is closing in on the all-time steals record. Not just at VCU; he blew past that mark last February and kept on going. With 296 career thefts, Weber's only 90 short of breaking the NCAA Division I record held by Providence's John Linehan.

    Last season's 6.8 steal percentageper Pomeroywas a personal low mark for Weber, but he did lead the nation for the third straight season. To put that 6.8 in perspective, Paul Gause of Seton Hall carded a 6.9 back in 2006-07and no one else has even broken 6.5 since Pomeroy started his site in 2003.

    If you're more interested in the simpler counting stats, Weber has led his conferencewhether the CAA or the Atlantic 10in steals all three years, and last season's 3.5 led the entire nation.

    Coach Shaka Smart's Havoc defense hasn't propelled the Rams back to the Final Four since that first heady run in 2011, but it's always fun to watch because of the ferocious Weber. Anyone willing to make a national Defensive Player of the Year prediction has to start with Weber at the top of his or her ballot and work their way down. There is no more destructive defensive force in college basketball.


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