Should we be worried about defense this year? The bloggers over at Fact on Villanova Sports aren't. They posted a piece criticizing the adherents to Ken Pomeroy's rating system, which has been used to attack the quality of Villanova's 2009/2010 team. No team has reached the Final Four in the last ten years while being ranked lower than 25 by Ken Pomeroy in Defensive Efficiency.
Pomeroy currently ranks Villanova's defense 69th in the country. At the end of last season, they were rated 15th in that category. The 'Cats are also rated 3rd in Offensive Efficiency. KenPom's computer predicts that this team will lose four more games, specifically away games at Georgetown, West Virginia and Syracuse, and giving only a 0.28% chance of finishing the conference schedule unbeaten.
The Wildcats are currently rated 11 in all of Division I in scoring-margin. They are also 15th in rebounding margin, and 36th in Field Goal % defense. Pomeroy has Villanova ranked #15 in adjusted tempo as well (with 73.5 possessions per game), second only to Providence in the Big East.
Currently only Texas and Missouri are in both Pomeroy's top-50 for defensive efficiency as well as the top 20 for adjusted tempo. In that top-20 for tempo, Villanova has the fourth-best defensive efficiency rating.
While opponents average 70.5 points against Villanova, the Wildcats average 85.2 points offensively in each game (good for 3rd-best in Division I). If they played a slower-pace, both of those numbers would be lower -- in other words, scoring defense isn't the most relevant statistic to consider.
Why does Villanova suffer in KenPom's defensive efficiency rating? Well, it's based on the points-allowed per 100 defensive possessions. Being 36th in field goal percentage defense doesn't help much with that calculation. Villanova also has committed a lot of fouls in the paint this year, allowing opponents to get to the charity stripe.
Of course, a lot of those field goals have been from 3-point range (142nd in Division I in opponent 3-point Field Goal %). There are 183 teams that hit their 3-point shots at a higher rate than our opponents average. The 'Cats have played eight games against those teams, and only three hit their shots from beyond the arc at a higher rate than their season average, Temple (hit 50%, averages 33.5%), Maryland (hit 47.4%, averages 38.8%) and Marquette (hit 47.8% in the rematch, averages 43%). The rest shot below their season average, and only one of them, Georgetown, reached 33.3%. George Mason shot 23.1% from the arc (34.9% season), LaSalle connected on only 10% (37.3% season), Ole Miss hit 25% (37% season), Notre Dame was at 31.8% (40.3% season), and Marquette made 30.0% (on Jan. 2nd). Georgetown normally makes 40% of it's shots from 3-point range.
Three-pointers are traditionally a low-percentage shot (most players/teams hit 1/3rd or fewer), and most college players don't have enough consistency from that range to do much damage. When preparing to defend a team, it actually makes sense to allow a shooter to take an open three if it means that you can shut down a higher percentage shot on the inside. Of course, if you let any one shooter get comfortable with an open shot outside, you risk giving up a lot of points. Once a player seems to be finding a groove, it is important to get a defender in his face.
The same applies to free throws: most teams don't connect on their free throws at a 75%+ rate like Villanova does. So far, Villanova's opponent with the highest free throw percentage has been Marquette (73.2% - 43rd in D-I). Villanova's opponents are averaging 69.5% on free throw attempts, which is slightly higher than the average of 68.6%). Most of our Big East opponents will shoot less than 70% on free throws. That's still a high percentage, but it still makes sense to foul in some situations to make a shooter work for their points one at a time, rather than allowing them to hit a layup or dunk for two. The odds are that if you foul someone twice on layups, they will get three or fewer points instead of four.
It's a risky strategy, and one that has burned this team a few times this season. Jay Wright's implementation of the triangle-and-two defense was supposed to resolve a deficiency against a hot shooter (or two), and in some cases it has been effective.
The 2010 Wildcats are a strange beast for Jay Wright. Last year we saw a good defense become great by March, ultimately losing to a great offense (with a good defense). This year, our situation is reversed - an elite offense paired with a less-effective defense. In order to succeed in March, this team will need to develop a lot defensively over this next month -- cutting opponent field goal percentages by taking away easy, open shots, and avoiding bad fouls.