SI’s College Basketball Projection System unveiled its 1-351 preseason rankings on Nov. 4. Today, we’re looking at our projected top 10 teams in defensive efficiency. Our defensive forecasts are based on a blend of returnees’ advanced stats (rebound, steal and block percentages), roster turnover (if churn is low, then 2014–15 performances in areas such as two-point field goal percentage are given a lot of weight; if high, then a coach’s historical defensive résumé matters more), experience (veterans have fewer lapses), height (taller frontcourts make for stingier D), and depth of talent. When factoring in past performance, our system focuses more on aspects of D that a team can control (such as two-point FG%, rebounding, turnovers forced and free-throw attempts created) and less on aspects affected by luck (such as opponents’ free-throw percentage and three-point percentage).
SI’s projected top 10 defenses for 2015–16
1. San Diego State (Projected Defensive Efficiency: 89.4 points allowed per 100 possessions)
The Aztecs ranked fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, and they return their interior anchor, senior center Skylar Spencer. He had the nation’s seventh-best block rate last season at 12.5%, and he’s hardly the only long athlete in their frontcourt rotation—it also includes 6'10" Malik Pope, 6'9" Angelo Chol and 6'8" Winston Shepard, all of whom are former top-100 recruits. SI’s projections believe that SDSU will continue to excel at rim protection and foul-avoidance, and the track record of coach Steve Fisher, who’s produced elite defenses seven out of the past 10 seasons, only bolsters our confidence.
2. Virginia (DE: 90.3)
The loss of Darion Atkins, who was the Cavaliers’ top shot-blocker and second-best defensive rebounder, is what keeps them from being No. 1 overall—but they still project to be excellent. Experience matters in our defensive projections, and Virginia’s veteran core of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, London Perrantes and Evan Nolte has a proven ability to defend at an elite level, forcing opponents into bad two-point jump shots, and long, one-shot-and-done possessions.
3. Wichita State (DE: 92.2)
Our system views graduate transfer Anton Grady, who came from Cleveland State, as a deceptively high-impact defender. The 6'8" forward plays close to the ground after multiple knee injuries, but he had a 24.0% defensive-rebounding rate, 6.0% block rate and 3.0% steal rate last season—all very impressive, especially the steal rate, which is indicative of a frontcourt player with advanced court awareness. The loss of wing stopper Tekele Cotton will hurt the Shockers, but their senior core of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel have defended at a high level for multiple seasons, and SI’s model takes that into account.
4. Rhode Island (DE: 92.3)
The Rams’ huge defensive improvements under Dan Hurley are the reason they jumped from 5-11 in the Atlantic 10 in last season to 13-5 last season. Most of their key defenders, including shot-blocker/rebounder Hassan Martin and steals leader Jared Terrell, are back, which should translate to an A-10 title and a trip to the NCAA tournament. Rhode Island has come a long way since finishing 256th in defensive efficiency in ‘11-12, Jim Baron’s final season as head coach.
5. Louisville (DE: 92.4)
This ranking is contingent on the continued employment of coach Rick Pitino, whose job could be in danger as a result of Louisville’s prostitution scandal. Despite all the external chaos around his program, Pitino reliably produces elite defenses: Louisville has finished in the top five in adjusted defensive efficiency for five straight seasons. The strength of the Cardinals’ D in ‘15-16 is its front line, as Chinanu Onuaku, Mangok Mathiang and Anas Mahmoud should provide plenty of rim protection, and give guards freedom to apply heavy pressure and gamble for steals.
6. Kansas (DE: 92.5)
This projection is based on five-star forward Cheick Diallo being eligible; with his combination of energy and athleticism, he’s expected to make a bigger contribution on defense than offense as a freshman. But even if Diallo doesn’t get cleared by the NCAA, Kansas’s D should be strong. The Jayhawks have quality frontcourt depth, and coach Bill Self is reliable in this department, having produced a top-10 defense for eight of the past 10 seasons despite major roster turnover.
7. Oklahoma (DE: 92.5)
When Lon Kruger first took the Sooners to the NCAA tournament, in 2013, they were a decent-offense, bad-defense team. Now our projections see OU contending for the Big 12 title—and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs—on the strength of a stout defense. The Sooners use a tight rotation of skilled veterans, do an excellent job of avoiding fouls, and despite that, guards Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield create a high number of steals.
8. Maryland (DE: 92.5)
While most of the other teams on this list were elite defensively last season, the Terrapins ranked just 40th in adjusted efficiency. Why does our projection system expect them to vault into the top 10? The biggest reason is a revamped frontcourt. Transfer Robert Carter had a monster defensive rebounding percentage of 28.3 as Georgia Tech’s starting power forward in 2013-14, and five-star freshman center Diamond Stone should contribute rebounding and shot-blocking at an adequate level. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to see the Terps go from one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the Big Ten last season to one of the best in ‘15-16.
9. Connecticut (DE: 92.7)
UConn also projects to improve substantially from a No. 65 ranking in defensive efficiency in ‘14-15. Shonn Miller, a 6'7" grad transfer from Cornell, should have a major impact: When he sat out all of ‘13-14 with a shoulder injury, Cornell ranked 350th on D; with Miller in the lineup last season, the Big Red ranked 78th. The return of 7-foot center Amida Brimah, meanwhile, means the Huskies have the nation’s best major-conference shot-blocker.
10. Tulsa (DE: 92.8)
Frank Haith has more of a rep as an offensive coach, thanks to the explosive teams he had at Missouri earlier this decade. But he built a top-20 defense at Tulsa last season, and with 96.7% of the minutes returning from that team, our system expects the Golden Hurricane’s D to only get better. The question is whether they can score effectively enough to get in the NCAAs; SI projects Tulsa as the No. 50 overall team and the first one left out of the tournament.