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Power Rankings: Grading the defenses of national title contenders

In this week's college basketball power rankings, Luke Winn analyzes the defenses of the top eight national-title contenders.

Volume XII of the Power Rankings descends into gimmickry, but it's gimmickry with substance: Defensive Report Cards with letter grades, strengths, weaknesses and a Most Valuable Defender for all the prime title contenders (and as a bonus, Northern Iowa).

1. Kentucky Wildcats


RECORD: 28-0

Grade: A+Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rank on 2Profile: Aggressive man-to-man with full-court pressure that varies between token (show a press, back off) and trapping off the inbounds passStrengths: The Wildcats' length has helped them become the best shot-challenging team in the country, and one of the best major-conference defenses of the modern (three-point) era. ... They lock down in big games; their numbers would be even better if they didn't have a propensity for lapses against inferior competition. ... Their switchability on the perimeter is second-to-none; teams barely post up against them because it's futile; and their double-giant combinations (particularly the Hyphens, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns) ensure that the rim remains protected at all times. ... Freshman point guard Tyler Ulis was an ideal addition, because he can apply claustrophobic ball pressure (his specialty) without fear of getting blown by off the dribble. ... On the occasions when UK has brain-freezes—as Cauley-Stein does in this GIF, playing zero-hedge D on a pick-and-roll—it has the talent to cover up the mistake:Weaknesses: Their love of blocks (which are more fun than walling up) results in them yielding more offensive boards than you'd expect. ... Opponents like to drag 7-footer Dakari Johnson and Towns into pick-and-rolls, because they're less mobile than Cauley-Stein, and the way they tend to sag back opens up scoring opportunities for the ballhandler. ... Cauley-Stein will make awe-inspiring plays but also lose interest in some possessions. ... There tends to be a defensive dropoff between the backcourt combos of Ulis-and-Devin Booker and Harrison-and-Harrison, although John Calipari is mixing up his guard combinations now that UK has moved away from the platoon system.Most Valuable Defender: Cauley-Stein

2. Virginia Cavaliers


RECORD: 26-1

Grade: A+A.D.E. Rank: 1Profile: Pack-Line man-to-man with zone principlesStrengths: An incredible Pack-Line team that excels at limiting transition and stopping penetration, especially off the pick-and-roll. ... The Cavs are far more disciplined than Kentucky, and their defensive quality has increased of late to carry them through Justin Anderson's absence. ... Scoring on them in the post is next-to-impossible; they prevent easy entries, wall up to limit field-goal percentage, and their big-to-big double-teams have been a source of turnover-creation. ... 6'8" senior Darion Atkins and 7-foot junior Mike Tobey are a highly effective interior duo, and everyone from the 2-5 spots contributes to lock down the defensive glass and limit opponents to a single shot.Weaknesses: Not many. These Cavs don't close out on shooters as well as past Tony Bennett teams have; Malcolm Brogdon, for all of his positives, is sometimes slow to recover (or put a hand up) and yields threes. ... As my go-to Virginia expert @rmj_equals_hero points out, stretch-fours—particularly Wake Forest's Konstantinos Mitoglou, who nailed six threes against them on Feb. 14—give the Cavs problems, because their bigs struggle to guard on the perimeter. A team with oversized shooters (Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Iowa State) could be trouble in the tourney.MVD: Atkins

3. Duke Blue Devils


RECORD: 25-3

Grade: CA.D.E. Rank: 81Profile: Extended man-to-man with some 2-3 zoneStrengths: Last year's Jabari Parker-led Blue Devils were a grade-D defensive team, but this version might be adequate enough to keep them in the national-title conversation. (Faint praise, but it's the truth: this is an offense-first and -second Duke squad.) ... They're surviving by running opponents off the three-point line in standard, Krzyzewskian fashion, avoiding fouls, mixing in a 2-3 zone, and as NBC's Rob Dauster noted recently, having Quinn Cook jam up/faceguard opposing scoring guards. ... Small forward Justise Winslow is a solid individual defender who's gotten the best of elite wings such as Justin Anderson and Sam Dekker, and Winslow has been equally as productive as Jahlil Okafor on the defensive glass in ACC games. ... They don't create many turnovers, but when they do, they're fantastic at transitioning quickly to their break and converting them into points.Weaknesses: Their backcourt struggles mightily at guarding in isolation and in pick-and-rolls, and thus was torched by teams with elite, penetrating guards (N.C. State, Miami and Notre Dame). ... Okafor is a conservative interior defender who has yet to make a major impact as a rim protector, but at least he knows how to stay out of foul trouble.MVD: Winslow (but lately, Cook is having an increased impact)

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs


RECORD: 28-1

Grade: BA.D.E. Rank: 33Profile: Man-to-man with occasional 2-3 zone changeup, and a seldom-used zone pressStrengths: The Zags don't block many shots, but they've effectively limited opponents' two-point field-goal percentage in WCC games. ... Polish 7-footer Przemek Karnowski stays vertical and rarely fouls while defending post-ups, and freshman Domantas Sabonis has a motor that makes him the WCC's best defensive rebounder. .... Shooting guard Gary Bell Jr. is a high-quality perimeter defender who doesn't get enough recognition for it.Weaknesses: Athletic, attacking guards (from Georgia, St. John's, UCLA, BYU and Arizona) have done damage by getting to the free-throw line, as the Zags as a whole are foul-prone against elite competition. ... Sabonis' energy often leads to early foul trouble. ... They also struggle at times to prevent open three-point looks, which could make them upset-prone in the NCAAs against an inferior-but-hot-shooting opponent.MVD: Bell Jr.

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5. Arizona Wildcats


RECORD: 24-3

Grade: AA.D.E. Rank: 3Profile: Pack-Line man-to-man on rebounding steroidsStrengths: Before this season began, coach Sean Miller warned that the Wildcats might not be able to replicate the level of D they played in '13-14, when they had two defense-first, NBA-bound stars in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. Miller's suspicions seemed correct in the early portion of '14-15, but over the past month, Arizona is looking scary again. It's held seven of its past eight opponents to 0.896 points per possession or less, including forcing Oregon and Oregon State into their least-efficient outputs of the season.Dominant defensive rebounding—as in, grabbing a national-best 77.6% of available boards—has been the biggest key. ... Unlike most teams, whose best glass-cleaners are at the 4-5 spots, Arizona's top defensive rebounders are shooting guard Stanley Johnson and small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while point guard T.J. McConnell has had at least four defensive boards on 13 occasions this season. ... McConnell is an opportunistic on- and off-ball defender who creates more turnovers than a typical guard in the Pack-Line. ... Hollis-Jefferson is one of the nation's top all-around wing defenders; he's quick, long and committed to guarding.Weaknesses: They're a bit vulnerable on the interior; 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski isn't a great post defender or shot-blocker, and is foul-prone (as is his backup, Dusan Ristic). ... The Wildcats haven't been limiting opponents' three-point attempts as well as they did last season—something that like Gonzaga, could hurt them in the NCAAs. ... When they insert gunner Gabe York off the bench to pull them out of offensive ruts, they sacrifice some D.MVD: Hollis-Jefferson

6. Villanova Wildcats


RECORD: 27-2

Grade: BA.D.E. Rank: 31Profile: Pressure man-to-man, with a three-quarter-court diamond press mixed in after some makesStrengths: The Wildcats do an excellent job of contesting perimeter shots, as they rank sixth among major-conference teams at defending catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy. ... While they no longer have a true lockdown wing like James Bell, they do have two quality, switchable wing defenders in Darrun Hilliard and Kris Jenkins, active guards in Dylan Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacono, and can create turnovers with their pressure and overall quickness.Weaknesses: The Wildcats' defense has been A-level on occasion—see what it did to VCU in November (0.874 PPP allowed), or Georgetown (0.788 PPP) in early February—but they haven't consistently locked down. ... They sometimes get foul-crazy, like when they gave the Hoyas 36 free-throw attempts in January. ... 'Nova has had some identity issues, alternating between extended pressure and entrenched halfcourt D. ... Its lack of size beyond center Daniel Ochefu (everyone else is 6'7" or smaller) is a problem when he goes to the bench.MVD: Hilliard

7. Wisconsin Badgers


RECORD: 25-3

Grade: B-/C+A.D.E. Rank: 51Profile: Conservative, halfcourt man-to-manStrengths: This is not an all-time great Bo Ryan defense, but it's one that keeps its A+ scorers on the floor. The Badgers excel at just two things—avoiding fouls and defensive rebounding—and are decent at limiting opponents' three-point attempts. ... Player-of-the-year candidate Frank Kaminsky is having the best defensive season of his career, having figured out the art of providing (some) rim protection without getting into foul trouble, while also putting up the best defensive-board percentage (27.9) in the Big Ten. ... In senior two-guard Josh Gasser they have a dependably solid perimeter defender.Weaknesses: UW is conservative on D almost to a fault; the flipside of being an extreme foul-avoidance team is that they don't aggressively challenge shots or create turnovers. ... Their efficiency has dropped off since losing starting point guard Traevon Jackson to a foot fracture in January; his replacement, Bronson Koenig, is a lesser pick-and-roll defender, although he adds value on offense.MVD: Kaminsky

8. Northern Iowa Panthers


RECORD: 27-2

Grade: B+A.D.E. Rank: 12Profile: Tempo-controlling, Pack-Line-ish man-to-manStrengths: They're a grind-you-down, force-you-to-settle-for-a-contested-J kind of team, essentially the Virginia of the Missouri Valley. ... UNI's average defensive possession length is 20.1 seconds—longer than every team in the nation other than San Diego State. ... Jeremy Morgan, a 6'5" wing who draws opponents' top scoring guards, is the best defensive stopper you've never heard of. ... The Panthers contest threes really well; guards Morgan, Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun create turnovers without fouling; and 6'8" star Seth Tuttle does the dirty work on the defensive glass.Weaknesses: UNI has done a decent job of protecting the paint in Mo-Valley games, but its 6'8"/6'6" front line is going to be an issue in the NCAAs. ... The Panthers' D was at its worst when it ran into an athletic, up-tempo team—VCU, in December—and they could be vulnerable against an Arkansas, West Virginia or Oklahoma-type opponent in the tourney.

The Next 24

9. Oklahoma
10. Utah
11. Kansas
12. Wichita State
13. Maryland
14. Notre Dame
15. Baylor
16. San Diego State
17. Iowa State
18. West Virginia
19. Arkansas
20. Butler
21. Oklahoma State
22. North Carolina
23. Georgetown
24. Louisville
25. Michigan State
26. SMU
27. Ohio State
28. Providence
29. N.C. State
30. Murray State
31. Davidson
32. VCU