Defense is set to take a major role in March Madness games in Charlotte

Wed, Mar 20, 2024

Defense is set to take a major role in March Madness games in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Chris Jans knows what he wants to see when he turns on film of his Mississippi State team's defensive effort.

Getting back quickly in transition.

Defending ballhandlers without constant help.

And a motor revving at go-go-go intensity.

Defense will be a heavy emphasis in the NCAA Tournament's West Region games Thursday in Charlotte, where three teams that rank among the nation's best reside in a four-team March Madness pod headlined by No. 1 seed North Carolina.

"People talk about, 'Oh, the guy was late to the shooter or didn't get around the post,' whatever the case may be," Jans said Wednesday. "If you track it backwards, to me, it usually goes back to someone didn't guard the ball very well and they got an angle or the ball got to the paint or whatever the case may be."

The teams in Charlotte have spent most of the season defending well entering the first-round games, first with Jans' eighth-seeded Bulldogs facing Tom Izzo's ninth-seeded Michigan State team, and then the Tar Heels having a home-state setting to face 16th-seeded Wagner.

Of that group, the Tar Heels rank sixth in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency by allowing 93.2 points per 100 possessions. The Spartans are ninth (93.7), followed by the Bulldogs at 18th (95.7).

With defensive shooting percentage, all four teams are in the top 15% of Division I's 361 programs, including the Seahawks (56th at .417).

The defensive uptick is a new development for the Tar Heels (27-7), who had finished in the top 10 of the KenPom efficiency metric only four times going back to the first year available in 1997 - their last under late Hall of Famer Dean Smith.

"Coach (Hubert) Davis talks about it all the time, that our defense sets the tone," UNC guard Cormac Ryan said. "It's no different going into March: We want to defend, set the tone early and continue to rely on our defense to help us win these games."

The Bulldogs (21-13) showed some of their potential by holding Tennessee to 30.6% shooting in an upset Southeastern Conference Tournament win last week. The Spartans (19-14), meanwhile, are trying to change their trajectory after allowing six of their last nine opponents to shoot at least 45%.

"We're not doing a lot of tricky things," Izzo said. "We're just kind of staying to the basics. It's worked pretty well for us so far."


No. 2 seed Arizona is banking on an infusion of Final Four experience from transfers entering Thursday's game against 15th-seeded Long Beach State in Salt Lake City.

Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson both joined the Wildcats via the transfer portal following Final Four runs at their previous schools. Love led North Carolina to the 2022 title game, while Johnson helped San Diego State do the same last year.

"They're just a help for us because they've been there, they've done it and they know what it takes to get there," Arizona center Oumar Ballo said.

Love was named AP player of the year for the Pac-12 after averaging a team-best 18.1 points. Johnson averaged 11.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

"They were significant contributors to teams that made it to the championship game, so that tells you they're really good players," Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. "It takes really good players to have great seasons and they've been awesome all year. My only regret is that I only get to coach them one year."


After last season, Dayton's Koby Brea found himself in a wheelchair and was determined to just start walking again. Now the junior is focused on how the seventh-seeded Flyers can get past No. 10 Nevada on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

"I have been reminiscing about this summer, just on everything I've gone through," Brea said about his surgery on both legs and recovery. "Just to be in this position is a blessing to be able to play in this tournament with my brothers, coaching staff and everybody."

Brea, who became the first two-time Atlantic-10 Sixth Man of the Year, had stress fractures in both tibias and had rods inserted into his legs to give the bones more support. He couldn't walk for five weeks and was pushed around campus by his teammates.

Brea eventually went from the wheelchair to crutches and then a walker. The way the team supported Brea brought them together and built chemistry that has translated to their in-game performance.

"How united and together we are helps us. The things we do off the court - we've seen how it's helped us grow on the court," said Brea, who averages 10.9 points a game and shoots 49% from 3-point range.


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