Ranking the Most Unstoppable Offenses in College Basketball
It's hard to defend your way to a national championship in college basketball. Just ask Virginia and Cincinnati, two men's teams that consistently rank among the 20 most efficient defenses in the nation, only to fall short of the Final Four time and again.
But catching fire on offense for three weeks? That kind of thing happens almost every year, and these unstoppable offenses are the ones most likely to do that this March.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the majority of our top 10 teams also rank in the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. However, this ranking is based on more than offensive efficiency.
Which teams have the most unstoppable individual players? How many guys can they count on to score every night? And what are their biggest weaknesses?
Teams are ranked in order of how much we would trust them to score consistently against an average defense.
Auburn is a better-shooting version of what West Virginia used to be. The Tigers get a lot of blocks and steals that turn into easy fast-break buckets. They are also one of the better offensive rebounding teams, creating a bunch of second-chance opportunities. And when Jared Harper and/or Bryce Brown is feeling it from three-point range, look out. If there had been one more spot on the list, it would have gone to Auburn.
Virginia Tech Hokies
This is one of the best three-point-shooting teams in the country, and if we were exclusively looking at home games, the Hokies would be a lock for the top five. But they have struggled on the road, and the recent 47-24 eyesore against NC State basically disqualified them from a spot in the top 10.
Wofford has four good-to-great three-point shooters and a big man in Cameron Jackson who does a little bit of everything. When the Terriers are firing on all cylinders, they can score a ton. But are they really unstoppable, or is their offensive efficiency a product of playing in the Southern Conference? In losses to Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, they only averaged 59.3 points. They're definitely a mid-major to watch out for in the NCAA tournament but not quite worthy of a ranked spot on this list.
The Tigers don't have any great shooters, but they sure can put points on the board. LSU has scored at least 72 in all but one game this season, averaging almost 83 per night. That's a product of having three outstanding offensive rebounders and a gifted point guard in Tremont Waters who can both find holes in a defense and turn defense into offense with one of the best steal rates in the country. Way too many people are still sleeping on this team.
10. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
South Dakota State's defense is a hot mess. The Jackrabbits don't force turnovers, they don't block shots and they allow more three-point attempts than any other team in the country. Even in recent wins over lowly Oral Roberts and Denver, SDSU allowed at least 80 points in each contest.
But this offense is one of the best in the nation.
The Jackrabbits don't have a great adjusted offensive efficiency, ranking 43rd at this point. That's due to a combination of a weak schedule and a poor offensive rebounding rate. However, they have the second-highest effective field-goal percentage (59.2).
Everyone knows about Mike Daum—the stretch 5 on pace for 3,000 career points thanks to more than 250 three-pointers. But they're not a one-man show. Both David Jenkins and Skyler Flatten are averaging better than 15 points per game and shooting over 45 percent from three-point range. Factor in Tevin King and Alex Arians as low-volume, high-efficiency scorers, and the Jackrabbits have one heck of a starting five.
South Dakota State has scored at least 74 points in all but one game this season and have reached the century mark three times. They might give up 80 points in any given game, but there's still a good chance they'll be able to win.
Assuming they win the Summit League tournament and reach the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year, this offense is going to be a headache for the unlucky coach of the No. 3 or No. 4 seed that draws the Jackrabbits in the first round.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
Like South Dakota State, Iowa's defense is a travesty. The Hawkeyes have allowed at least 82 points on eight occasions, and they have yet to play an overtime game this season. They did recently hold Michigan to 59 points, but that said more about the Wolverines' offensive woes than anything.
But in spite of those defensive struggles, Iowa is 19-5 thanks to its wildly efficient offense.
None of our other top 10 teams share this trait with the Hawkeyes, but they are phenomenal at getting to and converting from the free-throw line.
They average 19.3 points per game on free throws, the highest mark in the nation. And it's not just one or two guys who draw contact on a regular basis. Five Hawkeyes average at least three free-throw attempts per game—two of whom (Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon) shoot better than 85 percent from the stripe.
That's not even a quarter of Iowa's scoring, though. The Hawkeyes also start a trio of 40-plus-percent three-point shooters alongside mountainous presences in the paint in Garza and Tyler Cook. Primary reserves Nicholas Baer, Connor McCaffery and Ryan Kriener also provide a lot of offensive value (in vastly different ways) when they come off the bench.
It's a formidable eight-man rotation, even in a Big Ten conference when 10 of 14 teams rank in the top 50 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Michigan State (twice), Wisconsin and Purdue were able to limit Iowa to 70 points or fewer, but those are the exceptions to the rule. Iowa is 18-1 when scoring at least 72 points this season. That includes a 98-point game against an Iowa State team that has only allowed more than 80 points twice all season and an equally impressive 74-point effort against Michigan's suffocating defense.
Poor defense might keep the Hawkeyes from making much of a run in the NCAA tournament, but this offense will keep them in any game.
8. Virginia Cavaliers
Over the past six years, one of the biggest hurdles in getting casual college basketball fans to accept tempo-free metrics like KenPom has been trying to convince them that Virginia is really good at offense.
It's a tough pill to swallow when you see that the Cavaliers don't even average 73 points per game. But 73 points is quite efficient at a snail-like pace of 62 possessions per game.
Virginia rarely commits turnovers and shoots over 40 percent from three-point range. Jack Salt (48.5 percent) is the only liability at the free-throw line. And the Cavaliers are much more effective on the offensive glass than they were the previous three seasons.
The biggest difference from last year—and the reason you shouldn't worry too much about a UMBC repeat—is the variety of scoring threats. In Ty Jerome, De'Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers have three legitimate go-to options, each of whom shoots well from distance and the free-throw line and can score in the paint too.
They are still susceptible to the occasional letdown, though. With Jerome banged up, Virginia recently struggled to score against both NC State and Miami. And Wisconsin and VCU each held the Cavaliers under 60 points in nonconference play on afternoons when no one could seem to buy a three-point bucket.
But at full strength, this team is almost impossible to stop. Virginia's patience on offense and its ability to deflate opponents with its defense are second to none. Don't expect the Wahoos to score 85 in any given game, but they'll score efficiently and avoid mistakes.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
You can go ahead and keep penciling North Carolina into this top 10 every year until Roy Williams retires. There have been a couple of duds here and there—most notably the 2009-10 team that suffered 17 losses the year after winning the title and losing Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green—but the Tar Heels typically have one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
They play fast and efficiently, which are two skills that rarely go hand-in-hand outside Chapel Hill.
UNC ranks fifth in adjusted tempo and ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency. The only other team in the top 25 of both categories is Duke, some of which can be attributed to a nation-best steal rate that results in a lot of two-second possessions that end with dunks.
That pace of play is North Carolina's biggest asset.
The Tar Heels aren't as relentless on the offensive glass as we're used to seeing over the past 15 years, and their three-point shooting—though better than they have done in the last decade—isn't drawing comparisons to that of Villanova, Marquette or Virginia. But their ability to run opponents out of the gym is second to none.
That all starts with defensive rebounding and the subsequent outlet passes. Whether it's Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks or Nassir Little cleaning up the opponent's missed shot, he is immediately turning and looking to get the ball up the court to Coby White or Kenny Williams for a transition bucket. The ball is barely off the other team's rim before it is on its way to Carolina's.
UNC can certainly score from its half-court offense, but those frequent fast-break buckets are why it averages 87.2 points per game instead of a more modest 76 or 77.
It's hard to say this is one of the five most unstoppable offenses in the nation, though, because the elite defenses of Virginia, Michigan and Kentucky did shut down the Heels. Kentucky did it with a combined 20 blocks and steals, while Michigan and Virginia refused to let them play at their preferred pace. Not many teams can keep UNC under 75 possessions, but those teams could be Carolina's kryptonite in March.
6. Michigan State Spartans
My love/hate relationship with Michigan State's offense has been well-documented over the past three years.
The Spartans do most things better than most teams. They have ranked top-40 in effective field-goal percentage in six straight seasons, including four years in the top 15. From Deyonta Davis to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward, they have also been one of the best offensive rebounding teams in three of the past four years. And their assist rate ranks No. 1 and is surely going to finish in the top seven for a fifth straight season.
They also have excellent individual assets. Cassius Winston is a legitimate candidate for first-team All-American. Ward, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins are workhorses in the paint. Matt McQuaid is a solid three-point shooter. Lesser-used guys like Kyle Ahrens and Aaron Henry make a few meaningful contributions in every game. Even without Josh Langford, the Spartans have offensive assets to spare.
Those are the parts that are easy to love.
What you hate to see, though, is the annual problem with turnovers.
It's not as much of an issue as it had been the last two seasons, but it sure does rear its ugly head from time to time—like when the Spartans coughed up the ball 24 times against Texas or when they hit that same mark two weeks ago in the loss to Illinois. And those aren't even elite turnover-forcing defenses. If Michigan State runs into a team like Duke, LSU or Auburn in the NCAA tournament, it's liable to get smoked because of opposing points off turnovers.
But on the 81 percent of possessions when they don't give the ball away, the Spartans are going to score more often than not. Their ball movement, floor-spacing and deep supply of scoring options make them too difficult to stop. Options for the defense are to either go for the knockout punch by forcing a lot of steals or slowly get picked apart by Winston and Co.
5. Villanova Wildcats
As has been the case for five years now, virtually the only way to stop Villanova is to hope it is having an off night from three-point range.
Despite losing four players who shot at least 40 percent from distance last year, the Wildcats are throwing up perimeter jumpers at a preposterous rate. Nearly 53 percent of Villanova's field-goal attempts are three-pointers. Only Savannah State (58.7 percent) does it more.
The thing is, the Wildcats are quite accurate, making 36.4 percent of those three-point attempts. Even after catching fire during the tournament, the 2015-16 team that won it all only finished at 36.2 percent. And that team only took 42.7 percent of its shots from three-point range.
They don't have a particularly lethal shooter, but just about everyone who steps on the court is a little deadly from downtown.
Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey and Joe Cremo all shoot between 37.5 and 38.9 percent and average a combined 9.6 makes per game. The only member of the primary nine-man rotation who doesn't average at least four three-point attempts per 40 minutes is Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who handles all the dirty work in the paint.
That isn't all Villanova excels at, though. For such a perimeter-oriented offense, the Wildcats are surprisingly good at getting to the free-throw line. They also rank in the top 100 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, turnover percentage and two-point percentage.
There's no glaring weakness to exploit. Which leads us back to the original point: Either hope it's an off night or make sure your offense has a great game against this mediocre defense, because Villanova is 71-2 over the past three years when shooting at least 32 percent from beyond the arc.
4. Purdue Boilermakers
For an offense that often feels like "Carsen Edwards or bust," Purdue sure can put points on the board.
The Boilermakers' raw numbers aren't that great. Aside from placing 17th in steal percentage allowed, Purdue does not rank in the top 15 in any of the "four factors" or "miscellaneous components" on KenPom. It is relatively close in offensive rebound percentage and three-point percentage, but there's nothing on the surface that says, "Wow, this team is crushing it on offense."
Factor in the difficulty of their schedule, though, and the Boilermakers are No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency—this in spite of a pair of sub-60-point efforts at Michigan and at Michigan State.
They have been much better on the road since those losses, though. Purdue scored 84 at Wisconsin, 79 at Ohio State and 99 at Penn State, averaging 123.6 points per 100 possessions in those three road games. That's a darn fine way to boost the efficiency rating.
The biggest reason no one can seem to stop Purdue lately is the emergence of freshman center Trevion Williams. The big man was a non-factor until mid-December, but he has become a dominant force in the paint and on the glass.
As Williams forces opposing teams to respect his presence down low—something Matt Haarms wasn't able to do when he was the starter—both Edwards and Ryan Cline have gotten more space to operate on the perimeter. That has resulted in excellent three-point shooting—and a lot of wins—over the past month.
The one Achilles' heel for this offense is free-throw shooting. Edwards is outstanding, but Williams (52.0 percent) and Nojel Eastern (64.7 percent) are a major liability. Haarms (68.5 percent) isn't great either, and Cline (20 attempts in 804 minutes) has one of the lowest free-throw rates in the country. Send any non-Edwards Boilermaker to the charity stripe in the final two minutes of a close game, and things could get dicey.
3. Tennessee Volunteers
There will be a rock-solid case for Tennessee at No. 1 if its point-scoring freight train keeps rolling through upcoming road games against Kentucky and LSU.
Business is about to pick up in a hurry, but Tennessee hasn't faced a lock for the NCAA tournament since mid-December—and in games against Kansas and Gonzaga, the Vols weren't doing much on offense until major surges in the final few minutes.
Gonzaga hasn't faced a tourney lock since mid-December either, but the Bulldogs are significantly higher in adjusted offensive efficiency. Duke has thrived on offense against a bunch of tournament-caliber opponents. That's the justification for not having Tennessee higher on this list.
As is, the Volunteers—who play at an adjusted tempo less than half a possession faster than the national average—have more games this season with at least 100 points than they have games with 70 points or fewer. They had one off night in a 66-53 win over Georgia Tech in early November but have been scoring at will ever since.
Tennessee ranks top-10 nationally in effective field-goal percentage, two-point percentage, free-throw percentage, block percentage—on both ends of the floor, for what it's worth—assist rate and adjusted offensive efficiency. The Vols are also top-25 in turnover percentage and roughly 60th in offensive rebounding percentage and three-point percentage.
Suffice it to say, there's a reason this team is one overtime loss against Kansas away from an undefeated record. Tennessee has won 14 of its last 16 games by a double-digit margin, and it seems to have about an eight-minute stretch in each game where it scores on every possession, turning a close game into a rout in a hurry.
Outside of Zion Williamson, there is not a more unstoppable force in the country than Grant Williams.
He doesn't shoot as often as he probably should, but when he flips the switch and decides to take over a game, best of luck to the opposition. And he's just one of the great scoring options on this roster. Jordan Bone is the only Volunteer in the rotation with an effective field-goal percentage below 55, and he makes up for that with a ton of assists and an 82 percent free-throw stroke.
2. Duke Blue Devils
For a team that can't shoot worth a darn, Duke sure can score in bunches.
The Blue Devils shot better than 37 percent from three-point range in each of the previous nine seasons, but they rank outside the top 300 at 31.6 percent this year. Among the starters, the most accurate perimeter shooter is Cam Reddish, and he's only at 34.8 percent.
Free-throw shooting is of equal concern. Reddish (78.6 percent) is the only starter making better than 68 percent of his freebies. RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson make most of Duke's trips to the charity stripe, and that duo is only making two out of every three attempts.
But the reason Barrett and Williamson spend so much time at the free-throw line is that hacking them is about the only way to stop them from getting to the rim. In particular, Williamson has been lethal, making 75.0 percent of his two-point attempts while taking nearly 11 per game.
Williamson doesn't miss many shots, but he does clean up a lot of Duke's misses, averaging nearly four offensive rebounds per game. That has helped the Blue Devils rank among the nation's leaders in offensive rebounding percentage. Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier have also been huge assets on the glass, creating a lot of second-chance opportunities for the teammates who take the shots.
Williamson has also played a gigantic role in Duke's transition offense with 2.3 steals and 2.0 blocks per game. Reddish and Tre Jones also average a pair of steals per night, and all those forced turnovers have been critical for a Duke team that is a little mortal in its half-court offense.
Save for the mutually sloppy Texas Tech game and the recent bizarre home game against Georgia Tech, Duke has averaged at least one point per possession in each contest this season. Combine that with the suffocating defense, and Duke's offense feels even more unstoppable.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
This is your official heads-up that Gonzaga is a serious threat to win the national championship.
If you've forgotten about the Zags during their annual bludgeoning of the West Coast Conference, here's a quick recap of what they have been up to. Since scoring 90 in a road loss to North Carolina in mid-December, Gonzaga has won 14 consecutive games by a double-digit margin. The Bulldogs have averaged 89.4 points per game during that time, surging to No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency—by a wide margin, no less.
In fact, Gonzaga's current AdjOE score of 128.2 is the second-highest of any team in the KenPom era, which dates back to the 2001-02 season. The only more efficient offense was Wisconsin in 2014-15 (129.0), when all five starters attempted at least 100 three-pointers and basically no one committed a turnover. It was almost perfection, and Gonzaga is close to that.
The incredible thing is the Bulldogs have done this without getting much out of Killian Tillie.
The three-point-shooting big man missed the first seven weeks of the season while recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, and he didn't have much of an impact before getting injured again. If you had told us over the summer that Tillie would be ninth on the roster in total points after three months, we would've been forced to assume that Gonzaga crashed and burned for the first time under Mark Few.
To the contrary, both Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are strong candidates for national player of the year, Zach Norvell Jr. has rebounded from a bit of a slow start and has resumed his role of a three-point assassin, and Josh Perkins is averaging 3.4 assists per turnover and shooting well from downtown too.
There's no real weak link on this team. Even backups Filip Petrusev, Jeremy Jones and Joel Ayayi each have incredible O-ratings and have gotten a good amount of experience in blowouts. Everyone in the primary nine-man rotation shoots better than 50 percent from inside the arc. Seven of the nine shoot better than 72.5 percent from the free-throw line. And each of the three main three-point shooters converts at least 37 percent.
Remember, this team scored 89 in a win over Duke and only lost by three to Tennessee on a neutral court. This isn't little ol' Cinderella Gonzaga any more. This team is just as much of a contender as the one that reached the title game two years ago.
All statistics current through the start of play Thursday. Advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.