The 2017 Effy Awards, Part III: Celebrating the best defensive players and teams
- Gonzaga and South Carolina feature prominently in Part III of The Effys, which celebrate the best defensive teams and players of the season.
SI presents The Effys: the least ambiguous and least prestigious postseason awards in college basketball. Every award is based on efficiency or other advanced metrics. No voting—just analytics. Part I of The Effys covered coaching awards. Part II covered offense. Part III, below, covers defense. Winners were based on a blend of individual and team analytics, as individual data rarely tells the entire story of a defender's impact.
Effy Defensive Team of the Regular Season: Gonzaga
The Zags led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 0.863 points per possession, and they were stingy enough in marquee, non-conference games and the NCAA tournament to silence anyone who claimed their defensive analytics were overinflated by West Coast Conference blowouts. They played 88.8% man-to-man, used a 2-3 zone as an effective changeup and rarely applied full-court pressure. Gonzaga thrived in part because it always had an elite rim protector at center, whether it was 7'1" Polish giant Przemek Karnowski (who stayed vertical and altered shots) or his backup—slender, one-and-done 7-footer Zach Collins (who excelled at the art of the smother block).
The versatility of power forward Johnathan Williams III allowed them to switch 1-4, as well as assign him to guard elite wing scorers. The Zags' disciplined pick-and-roll coverage and their emphasis on limiting three-point attempts forced opponents into plenty of bad, contested jumpers. It was no fluke that they ranked No. 1 nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed (at 41.1%, according to kenpom.com). Their three-guard lineups—with a mix of the 6'3" Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, and the 6'4" Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson—contained enough size to avoid running into mismatches on the wings. Many of Mark Few's previous Gonzaga teams had great scorers who were suspect defenders—Kyle Wiltjer and Adam Morrison being the prime examples—but this was a squad with no glaring defensive liabilities.
Effy Defensive Team of the NCAA Tournament (minimum four games played): Gonzaga
The Zags finished with the top adjusted defensive efficiency rating of the regular season and the NCAAs. Over their six tourney games, they allowed an adjusted 0.837 PPP; national champ North Carolina came in second, at 0.874 PPP. It was a tad surreal to see Few—a coach who, when Morrison Fever was at its peak in '05-06, presided over the nation’s 170th ranked D—storm into the 2017 tourney with such a stout defense. In the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, Gonzaga held West Virginia and Xavier to their second-worst offensive performances of the entire season. And in the title game, the Zags became the only team to hold North Carolina to less than 1.000 PPP (at 0.961) in March or April. Collins' rim protection and Williams III's versatility were their biggest weapons over the course of the NCAAs.
Defensive All-Effy Team: The Elite Eight Forwards/Centers (minimum 50% of minutes played)
Jordan Bell, 6'9" junior PF/C, Oregon: The eight shots he swatted in the Elite Eight against Kansas catapulted him into Twitter memedom, but Bell's defensive value was about more than blocks. He was the only major-conference player this season with a defensive-board percentage above 20.0 (his was 21.8), a block percentage above 8.0 (8.4) and a steal percentage above 2.0 (2.6).
Ben Lammers, 6'10" junior, Georgia Tech: A master of rim-protecting without drawing whistles, Lammers finished 21st nationally in block percentage (at 9.9) but No. 1 in blocks per foul (at 1.47, according to TeamRankings.com). His interior D is the biggest reason the Yellow Jackets defied ACC-cellar expectations and made a run to the NIT finals.
Reggie Lynch, 6'10" junior., Minnesota: It's no stretch to call Lynch the best shot-blocker in college hoops. He ranked No. 1 nationally in block percentage in each of his two seasons at Illinois State, in '13-14 and '14-15, and then was No. 2 (at 14.5%) in his debut year with the Gophers. Their defense was a full tenth of a point per possession better when he was on the floor (0.92 PPP) than when he was sitting (1.02 PPP), according to hooplens.com.
Przemek Karnowski, 7'0" senior., Gonzaga: Big Shem was an under-the-radar, elite defender who lacked impressive block stats but perfected the art of the vertical, space-eating shot-challenge. Zags opponents shot just 39.5% on twos when he was on the floor, according to hooplens.com, and he helped them rank No. 1 overall in efficiency. (His backup, Zach Collins, was a more traditional rim protector who would've been in consideration for this list if he hadn't fallen below the 50% minutes threshold.)
Tacko Fall, 7'6" sophomore., UCF: The Golden Knights' defense was built to funnel drivers toward the impossibly tall Fall, and they held opponents to just 39.9% on twos—the lowest percentage in the nation. Fall's blocks were also retained by UCF (as opposed to being offensive-rebounded) 67.7% of the time, which was the best rate of any of the nation's top 20 shot-blockers, according to hoop-math.com data.
Ethan Happ, 6'10" sophomore, Wisconsin: His rare blend of turnover-creation and glass-cleaning helped the Badgers rank No. 9 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. According to DraftExpress.com's database, the only other major-conference frontcourt player in the past decade with percentages of at least 20/4/4 in defensive boards/blocks/steals (Happ had 25.4/4.7/4.0) was Colorado power forward Andre Roberson in '12-13—after which he was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the Thunder.
Mikal Bridges, 6'7" sophomore., Villanova: He's not a classic frontcourt guy, but I'm honoring Bridges here because he's one of the nation's best, 1-5 switchable defenders. He took on many of their most important, perimeter defensive assignments, and he served as the head of their 1-2-2 press, but when he was called upon to defend opposing posts, his hustle and length helped compensate for the Wildcats' lack of interior height. Bridges was an essential part of them ranking No. 12 in adjusted efficiency despite playing some of the smallest lineups of any elite team.
Isaiah Wilkins, 6'7" junior., Virginia: The Cavaliers' D took a noticeable hit when he got sick—first with strep throat, then "mono-like symptoms"—in late February and early March, limiting him to just five minutes of playing time in the NCAAs. Prior to that, Wilkins was a high-impact frontcourt defender. Splitting time at the 4 and 5 spots, he provided a similar (albeit lesser) blend of defensive boards, blocks, steals and deflections as Bell did, while helping Virginia rank No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Defensive All-Effy Team: The Elite Eight Guards/Wings (minimum 50% of mins. played)
Kadeem Allen, 6'3" senior., Arizona: He was a relentless bully of a defender who caused problems for opponents' top backcourt scorers, such as when he forced likely No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz into his second-worst game of the season on Jan. 29 in Tucson. Allen's shot-challenging prowess helped the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in three-point percentage allowed (at 31.8%), and he finished second among major-conference guards in blocked threes, with 10.
Jevon Carter, 6'2" junior., West Virginia: He was the nation's preeminent on-ball pest, and the top turnover-creator (with a steal percentage of 4.4) on the nation's No. 1 team in turnovers-forced percentage. Carter manufactured much of the chaos and panic that made Press Virginia such a dreaded opponent.
Duane Notice, 6'2" senior., South Carolina: Focus only on individual, box-score defensive stats, and you won't notice Notice (sorry). Watch tape of the Gamecocks, who ranked No. 3 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 5 in turnovers-forced percentage, and the impact he made as the spearhead of their halfcourt pressure is obvious. Notice's aggressive ballhawking often stopped opposing point guards in their tracks near halfcourt, disrupting them from initiating offensive sets.
De'Aaron Fox, 6'3" freshman., Kentucky: How did the Wildcats manage to rank No. 7 in adjusted defensive efficiency while lacking an elite rim protector or defensive-rebounder? Part of the answer is Fox, whose combination of aggressiveness, end-to-end speed and lateral agility allowed him to apply impressive ball pressure on opposing point guards. Example A: his work against UCLA's Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16.
Sindarius Thornwell, 6'5" senior., South Carolina: The Gamecocks' go-to guy on offense also had phenomenal advanced defensive stats. Thornwell was capable of defending all five positions, he led the SEC in steal percentage (at 3.9) during conference play, and his defensive-rebounding and block stats were equivalent to that of a decent power forward.
Donovan Mitchell, 6'3" sophomore., Louisville: Merely staying on the floor for 32.3 minutes per game while playing the level of defense Rick Pitino demands is no joke. Playing that much and leading the ACC in steal percentage (at 3.6), and guarding opponents' best perimeter scorers for the nation's No. 8 defense, is worthy of recognition—even if Mitchell had more shot-blocking help on his back line than the other guards on this list.
Kasey Hill, Florida, 6'1" senior., Florida: Like Notice, Hill wasn't a defensive stat-sheet stuffer; he just made life uncomfortable for opposing point guards, helping lift the Gators to a No. 5 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency. Virginia's normally unflappable London Perrantes was so flustered against Hill in the second round of the NCAAs that he managed just six points on 2-of-12 shooting and committed four turnovers.
Ishmail Wainright, 6'5" senior., Baylor: He was a versatile, 1-5 switchable standout in man-to-man (which the Bears played 51.4% of the time) and a pest in their 2-3 and 1-1-3 zones. Ish was, essentially, Baylor's defensive glue, as it struggled whenever he went to the bench: In Big 12 play, the Bears allowed 0.99 PPP with him in the lineup and 1.11 PPP without him.