What Is The Ceiling For A Defense-First Offensively-Challenged Team?

Four seasons into the Mike White era it’s easy to see his identity as a head coach and it’s a defense-first mentality geared towards suffocating an opponent when they have the basketball. Each season so far in his tenure has seen the Gators be significantly better on the defensive side than the offensive one and if you go back to his time at Louisiana Tech only one season out of four saw the Bulldogs be more efficient offensively than defensively.

Using KenPom’s adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency stats (which I will be referencing moving forward in this article) here are where the Gators have sat nationally over the last four seasons. For those of you who are unaware, these adjusted rankings from KenPom factor in the quality of opposition into the ratings, meaning a team couldn’t just pad their efficiency numbers against bad competition.

2016

Defense: 14th
Offense: 85th

2017

Defense: 5th
Offense: 25th

2018

Defense: 24th
Offense: 41st

2019

Defense: 10th
Offense: 122nd

As you can see, the Gators have been elite defensively in White’s tenure and he’s done it with multiple different lineup configurations. Particularly impressive has been in the last two seasons when the Gators have stayed near the top of the country in defense despite being undermanned and undersized. Considering the Gators have been able to lock down on their end with a small perimeter crew and a depleted frontcourt they could be absolutely incredible defensively once all their pieces are healthy next year and with stoppers like Scottie Lewis and Omar Payne on campus.

The question for the Gators is this. What is the ceiling for a team that is elite defensively but not great offensively? We’ve seen at this point that no matter the personnel Coach White is going to have his guys defending at a high level but if they can’t be in the top 25 in offense (like they were in the Elite Eight run) how good can they really be?

To answer this I decided to look back at some teams from the last 4 years that were in a similar position to the Gators and that’s tremendous defensively but not great offensively. I then noted how their season ended and then added some thoughts on what we could gather from that team and their success or lack there of. After that, we should have an idea of what the ceiling is for a team that struggles offensively but clamps down on defense.

As I mentioned before, the rankings will be from KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings which to me, and most people in college basketball, are the best rankings due to how they weigh quality of competition into the numbers instead of just using raw field goal percentages or points.

2015

Syracuse (18-13)

Offense: 117th
Defense: 20th

Missed NCAA Tournament

Look how similar those rankings are to Florida’s current season. This Rakeem Christmas-led Syracuse squad missed the dance and showed that if your offense is in the triple digits you’re going to need to be even better than 20th if you’re going to make the field.

Cincinnati (23-11)

Offense: 94th
Defense: 17th

#8 Seed in the NCAA Tournament, Lost in Round of 32

The difference in being an NCAA Tournament team and being on the outside looking in is shown between Syracuse and Cincinnati here as the Bearcats were only slightly better in defense and only 23 spots better in offense, but that is how fine the line is. Think about how different Florida’s season would be if they had won a few of the tight games they’ve let slip this season. If they were even in the 90’s offensively like this Cincinnati team was instead of 110th where they sit now, the Gators could be in the projected field.

San Diego State

Offense: 162nd
Defense: 5th

#8 Seed in the NCAA Tournament, lost in the Round of 32

What can the Gators learn from this team? If you’re going to have an offense that ranks in the 100’s you’ve got to be even better than a top 10 defense, you’ve got to be top 5. Obviously the Gators are still better offensively than this Aztec team but I think they show that if you’re going to be poor offensively you have to be a transcendent defensive team, not even “just” top 10, even though that sounds a bit ridiculous.

Louisville (27-9)

Offense: 66th
Defense: 4th

#4 Seed in the NCAA Tournament, lost in Elite Eight

I like seeing a team with those rankings make the Elite Eight because those are numbers I think the Gators could hit next season. They’ve already been better than 66th twice in Mike White’s time in Gainesville and if they are 10th in defense with this current group of talent I think they could be 4th next season. This Louisville team shows you can be average offensively and still go deep if you are amazing defensively, something that could very much be the case for future Gator teams under White. What this Cardinals team did have that the Gators didn’t? Scorers that could get in done in the clutch when the games were tight in Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear. Though they weren’t outstanding offensively they kept games tight with their defense and then pounced offensively with their best scorers when they needed them. Florida is lacking that guy but if they can develop one they’ll be able to play that kind of game.

2016

Louisville (23-8)

Offense: 42nd
Defense: 2nd

Missed NCAA Tournament

Okay, here’s a team that is a reminder that when you can’t score in the clutch you lose games that you should win and that can bite you. Being 42nd in offense and 2nd in defense should be enough to not only make the dance but be a good seed, but the Cardinals missed it all together and it was because of some important games they lost because they couldn’t score enough. Even though they were spectacular on defense the loss of Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear left them without go-to scorers and it bit them. This team is a reminder that sometimes no matter how good your defense is you need to be able to score to finish games and secure your fate.

2017

South Carolina (26-11)

Offense: 91st
Defense: 3rd

#7 Seed, lost in Final Four

As Gators fans we know this team well and they should be a reminder that a defense-reliant team can go all the way to a Final Four. Much like many of the other defense-first teams that made it deep in the Tournament it seems like even their offense wasn’t great they had guys who could score when the game slowed down in Sindarius Thornwell, Chris Silva, and PJ Dozier. Frank Martin was excellent at drawing up sets to score late in games and I think that will be something White needs to improve on to get his teams to the highest levels they can achieve.

2018

Syracuse (23-14)

Offense: 135th
Defense: 5th

#11 Seed (Play-in Game), lost in Sweet Sixteen

Another team that has some numbers that are similar to the Gators’ this season and it should be inspiring to Florida fans that this Orange team slipped into the Tournament through a play-in game and then went on a run. Defense can win you games in March and this iteration of Syracuse shows that if you’re a lockdown defensive team you just need to find a way to get into the Tournament and then once you do, good things can happen.

Loyola-Chicago (32-6)

Offense: 63rd
Defense: 17th

#11 Seed, Lost in Final Four

Oh, speaking of teams that just needed to make it into the Tournament so they could go on a run with their defense, how about the Ramblers who went into Gainesville and beat the Gators that season? Head coach Porter Moser was committed to a pack line style of man defense that really protected the paint and it frustrated opponents when their shots weren’t falling. It should be noted that there was definitely a bit of luck involved in their run as they won their first three games by a combined 4 points and when you’re playing in that many one-possession games it’s often a toss up. However, they were playing power conference opponents to one-possession games and doing it with their defense. Considering their offense was mediocre and their defense was good, but not outstanding, this once again shows that you can be solid on the defensive end and win games if you can score late when you need it.

Outlook

So now that we’ve seen all these teams, we can see what the ceiling is for squads that rely on defense while having a mediocre offense. It’s high, as high as the Final Four. Unfortunately, the lows are missing the Tournament all together and that was especially evidenced by teams like that Louisville squad that were much better than this year’s Florida team and still didn’t sniff the dance. What I came away from after studying all the teams that had similar profiles to what Florida has looked like under Mike White is that your offense can be mediocre as long as you have scorers to get buckets late when the game is close and it’s the final two minutes. There are countless examples of this I didn’t add due to the length of this article (Texas Tech last season with Keenan Evans, Cincinnati last year with Gary Clark, 2016 Wichita State with Fred VanVleet, etc.) and it made it very apparent that the Gators potentially could have been one “guy” away from this season having a much different outlook. Looking forward towards future Mike White Gators teams I think it’s important to know that you can win being a defense-first team and you can do it without a high-powered offense, but you need to be able to execute down the stretch and until the Gators can do that, they’re going to be firmly on the bubble.