Here's how much Nevada's defense must improve to reach Final Four

Coach Eric Musselman and his Nevada Wolf Pack must grow defensively to get to the Final Four. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The old saying is “Defense wins championships.”

That’s not exactly true. Both offense and defense are required to win championships. But you can’t just score your way to a national championship, with reaching the title game being the goal of the Nevada basketball team this season.

The numbers don’t lie: If you don’t have one of the 50 best defenses in the nation, you’re not getting to the Final Four. How iron clad is that? Only once in the last 10 seasons has a team ranked outside the top 50 in defense and reached the Final Four. That was the 2010-11 VCU team, a No. 11 seed that went from the First Four to the Final Four.

Using Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics, I went back and looked at the last 10 Final Fours to see how important defense was. (Spoiler alert: It’s pretty important). Here are the most interesting numbers from that research. In the last 10 years:

* Only 2011 VCU was outside the top 50 in defense and made the Final Four (it was 78th)

* Only three teams above No. 37 in defense reached the Final Four

* No team ranked higher than 18th in defense won the national championship

* The average defensive rating of the last 10 national title winners was 9.4.

* The average defensive rating of the last 40 Final Four teams was 16.4.

Why is all of this important? Because Nevada, ranked seventh in the preseason AP Top 25, was nowhere near those numbers last season when it reached the Sweet 16. It was the defense that let down Nevada in that 69-68 Sweet 16 loss to Loyola Chicago, which shot 55.8 percent en route to victory. If the Wolf Pack is going to reach the Final Four, it must be better on defense. Much, much better. Nevada ranked 108th in KenPom’s defensive metrics last season, down from 101 the year before and 55 the year before that.

Last year’s Wolf Pack was coach Eric Musselman’s worst defensive team in his three seasons at Nevada, but there is reason to believe this year’s defense will be better, even if the early returns in Nevada’s first two exhibition games haven’t been positive.

“We’re going to be better because Muss emphasizes it every day,” Nevada guard Jazz Johnson said during the team's media day. “That exact stat you gave, we must hear that three, four times every practice. He constantly talks about it. We have to prove ourselves at being top 50 at defense and the offense will take care of itself. Honestly, if we’re top 50 in defense, we’ll have a lot of runouts, a lot of transition so the offense will take care of itself.”

It’s not easy being a top-50 defensive team, however. The Wolf Pack hasn’t hit that mark since 2005-06 when it placed No. 39 in nation in KenPom’s stats. That was the third straight season Nevada was in the top 40 in the nation defensively, and the Wolf Pack made the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons.

The Wolf Pack should be an elite offensive team – KenPom’s preseason numbers rank Nevada No. 1 in the nation offensively – but will it be good enough on defense to allow that offense to soar? (KenPom has Nevada No. 23 defensively in his preseason rankings). Caleb Martin said added depth will make Nevada better on defense. The Wolf Pack can go 10 deep after mostly going seven deep in 2017-18.

“Defense is a big emphasis,” said Martin, who had a foot injury last year that limited him defensively. “It’s always been a big emphasis. We just didn’t have enough people. We were thin on players, we were trying to save bodies, I was hurt. There was a lot of stuff that went into it. This year, because we have the bodies, we do have the size, having big guys waiting at the rim, that will help our defense out and I think that gives us more confidence to press up on people and I think it will automatically improve.”

One reason for Nevada’s confidence is the added size in the post. After topping out at 6-foot-7 last season, the Wolf Pack could start two 6-11 players in Jordan Brown, a McDonald’s All-American, and Trey Porter, a high-production graduate transfer from Old Dominion. Both are capable shot blockers who can help if the Wolf Pack’s perimeter defense gets beat off the dribble, which was a problem last year.

“I think that Coach this year is really trying to stress staying in front of the ball and obviously we have bigs to alter shots at the rim,” said Cody Martin, the reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year. “Trey Porter is a great shot blocker, JB can get up there and alter some shots, too. That’s something he’s really preaching this year to stay in front of the ball. We really relied on our three-ball last year and transition, and it’s not like we gave up points but it almost looks like we gave up points. It’s something we really struggled with last year and we’re really trying to fix this year.”

Nevada’s exhibition game defense has frustrated Musselman, who lit into his team after a lopsided loss to Washington and then saw no improvement in the first half against San Francisco State before Nevada pulled away late. Musselman threatened to put his team in a zone, a scheme he has sparingly run in his first three seasons in Reno, although whether that happens is to be determined.

“I think we’re capable of being a very good defensive team,” said Cody Martin, adding playing with two bigs requires an adjustment that will take some time. “We just have to work out kinks here and there. We have guys who can alter shots at the rim, we have length, we have quickness. It’s all about figuring things out right now.”

Added Caleb Martin: “We’re going to score regardless because that’s just how the game is and we play fast and with our playing style it’s just going to happen. I think sometimes we kind of lose sight of defense and I think we kind of did at first. On defense, we want to be a lockdown team.”

The Wolf Pack gets its first challenge of the regular season Tuesday when it hosts BYU, which has won at least 20 games for 13 straight seasons. The Cougars, led by longtime head coach Dave Rose, typically has an excellent offense. The same is expected this season. If Nevada is going to finish the year where it wants – the Final Four – it will come down to improved defense, which will be tested in Tuesday’s opener.

“We’re not going to just wave a magic wand and become this great defensive team,” Musselman said. “But we certainly need to get better and make growth in being a better defensive team. BYU’s known as a great offensive team, so it’s an area of concern for sure.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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