Skip to main content
ABC News
Defense Might Win Championships. But These No. 1 Seeds Need More Offense.

This article is part of our March Madness series.

Does defense really win championships? Well, we’re about to find out in the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament, which tips off its round of 64 on Thursday afternoon. 

The top four seeds in the tournament — Houston, Alabama, Kansas and Purdue — all have a reputation for making their opponents look like they’re violating James Naismith’s 13 rules on offense. According to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, the quartet has an average adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 10.0, better than the typical No. 1 seed’s ranking (13.1) going back to 2002. But there’s a catch. For as good as these four teams are defensively, they also struggle considerably more on offense than typical No. 1 seeds.

This year’s 1 seeds are more defensively inclined than usual

Average ranking of tempo- and schedule-adjusted efficiency statistics for No. 1 seeds entering the men’s NCAA Tournament, 2002-2023

Season No. 1 Seeds Offense Defense Overall
2023 Alabama, Kansas, Houston, Purdue 16.5 10.0 5.0
2022 Arizona, Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas 5.3 17.5 3.5
2021 Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois, Baylor 4.3 16.5 2.5
2019 Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, North Carolina 4.0 9.3 3.0
2018 Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, Xavier 8.8 32.0 6.5
2017 Gonzaga, Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas 6.5 17.3 4.0
2016 Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon 7.3 16.3 5.3
2015 Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, Duke 3.5 16.3 3.3
2014 Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Wichita St. 22.0 4.5 4.3
2013 Louisville, Indiana, Gonzaga, Kansas 11.3 13.3 3.8
2012 Kentucky, Michigan St., North Carolina, Syracuse 10.0 8.0 4.3
2011 Ohio St., Duke, Kansas, Pittsburgh 4.0 13.0 2.5
2010 Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky 9.0 8.5 3.5
2009 Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Connecticut, Louisville 23.3 15.8 3.5
2008 Kansas, UCLA, Memphis, North Carolina 8.5 7.0 2.5
2007 North Carolina, Ohio St., Florida, Kansas 10.0 6.8 2.5
2006 Duke, Connecticut, Villanova, Memphis 11.0 12.3 4.5
2005 Illinois, North Carolina, Duke, Washington 5.3 19.0 5.0
2004 Duke, Saint Joseph’s, Kentucky, Stanford 16.3 5.5 6.0
2003 Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas 11.8 17.3 5.5
2002 Duke, Cincinnati, Kansas, Maryland 4.3 5.5 2.5

The 2020 men’s NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Houston is the most balanced of the No. 1 seeds, with a top-15 offense to go with a top-five defense, while Purdue features an elite scoring attack — centered around arguably the best (and tallest) offensive threat in the country in Zach Edey — and a (relatively) middling defense. But Alabama and Kansas are the No. 1 seeds that jump off the screen — and not for the better. In fact, if either the Crimson Tide or Jayhawks wind up cutting down the nets in Houston, they would become the most offensively challenged group to win it all since UConn and its 57th-ranked offense made an improbable run as a No. 7 seed in 2014.1

We’ve talked a lot here about the dangers of picking high-seeded teams that feast on offense but take a more blasé approach to defense — and those kinds of teams have been No. 1 seeds more often than defensively inclined ones. But that’s not to say you should automatically trust teams that clamp down on defense but struggle to score on offense. Just two of the past 20 champions have entered the tournament with an offense ranked outside the top 20. Setting aside the randomness of those two UConn runs, it’s clear that NCAA champions have tended to be just as good offensively as they are defensively — if not better. And both champions since the start of the pandemic — Baylor in 2021, Kansas in 2022 — earned their keep on the offensive side of things before the start of their title runs.

Moreover, there are reasons to doubt the sustainability of the defensive chops for at least one No. 1 seed this year: Houston, whom we listed among the most vulnerable top dogs heading into this year’s madness. Yes, the Cougars get after it on that end of the floor in a variety of ways, ranking in the top five of block percentage and opposing 3-point and 2-point percentage, as well as the top 25 of defensive turnover rate. But the Cougars have also allowed opponents to take 43.7 percent of their shots from long distance, the 22nd-highest rate in all of Division I. We know that a better metric of 3-point defense is how many threes you allow to be taken, rather than the percentage that opponents shoot on those threes, which tends to be much more random. If Houston sticks to its defensive principles, allowing its tournament foes to liberally hoist from deep, then there’s a good chance the Cougars are sent packing before they get their grand homecoming in the event’s final weekend.

Of course, Houston could just be an outlier in how much they allow opponents to fire away while also holding them to a remarkably low success rate. (The Cougars did surrender a similar shot profile last season, when they made it all the way to the Elite Eight as a No. 5 seed.)2 And each of these four contenders has shown why it’s deserving of its seed; there was virtually no disagreement over the selection — and order — of the four No. 1 seeds. But here’s some food for thought: The last No. 1 seed to enter the tournament with an offense ranked outside the top 20 was Virginia in 2018. We all know how that ended.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions!


  1. Coincidentally, UConn also won a title in 2011 after entering the Big Dance with an adjusted offensive efficiency ranking of No. 21, making it the first team in the KenPom era to win a title with a pre-tournament offensive efficiency ranking outside the top 20. Then the 2014 version said, you haven’t seen anything yet!

  2. Not to mention, the Cougars are also great at defending 2-pointers.

Santul Nerkar was a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.


Latest Interactives