Best defensive teams in 2014-15

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
10:00
AM ET
So tried, so trite, so true.

Defense truly does win games, if not championships, especially in college basketball.

As we impatiently suffer through the summer doldrums and await the arrival of the 2014-15 season, here are three teams that have that critical defensive piece of the puzzle in place and two more that might need some help to achieve their goals:

Teams to watch

Arizona -- Selfish Wildcats fans can be forgiven for being happy to have Brandon Ashley back in the fold. The forward’s injury last season was a big speed bump for Arizona and devastating to Ashley, but his return means big things for the Wildcats, especially on defense.

Coach Sean Miller likes his teams to play physical, blue-collar D, and he has two guys who personify that: Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski.

The Wildcats lose a little of their inside presence given Aaron Gordon's departure for the NBA, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a terrific player off the bench last season and ought to slide in seamlessly.

In the backcourt, point guard T.J. McConnell is relentless on the ball, but someone else will have to fill in for do-everything guard Nick Johnson.

All of that and we haven’t even mentioned a freshman class, led by Stanley Johnson, that ranks seventh in the nation.

The Wildcats weren’t always great offensively last season, but with a defense that allowed only 58.6 points per game, they didn’t need to be. Don’t expect much to change this season.

Virginia -- Welcome back to the dental chair, college basketball. The Cavaliers will make life like a root canal once again.

Virginia frustrates the bejeezus out of opponents, squeezing out dribble-penetration opportunities and essentially taking teams out of any offensive rhythm they hope to generate.

That’s not changing anytime soon, not with Tony Bennett in charge.

Maybe it's not aesthetically pleasing to the offensive-minded in the game, but it works. Last season, Virginia won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, sweeping the hardware in a league that includes Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

With five of eight regulars back, Bennett won’t have to explain his system or educate guys on the fine art of defense. It’s already ingrained in their Wahoo DNA.

Last season, Virginia allowed 55.7 points per game. And that was with a decent offensive weapon in the form of Joe Harris.

Imagine this season? Those 55.7 points might look like a high-water mark.

Louisville -- Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to college ranked as one of the bigger surprises in the pre-draft season and upped the expectation meter in Louisville more than a few notches.

It also makes the Cardinals, always a good defensive team, potentially a very good one. Harrell and Mangok Mathiang will be a rather imposing pair to handle for any team looking to score inside.

But they aren’t the only weapons for Rick Pitino.

The coach counts heavily on his guards, especially on defense. He works his players like track athletes, allowing them to swarm, annoy and pester opponents like full-court gnats.

Point guard Chris Jones didn’t prove as adept defensively last season at that, but you can bet Pitino will make sure Jones improves in that department. With Russ Smith gone, Jones will get the full laser focus of the coach’s attention.

His backcourt mate, Terry Rozier, proved last season to be an adept defender already.

Even after losing so much experience, the Cards could be even better than the squad that gave up just 61.1 points last season and ranked fourth in defensive efficiency.

Teams that might struggle

Florida -- Last season, the Gators were downright stingy, allowing 57.8 points per game, third-fewest in the country.

But that was one of the most veteran teams in the country. Now coach Billy Donovan essentially goes for a wholesale swap and will field one of the least-experienced teams in the nation.

Young players and defense don’t generally go hand in hand.

This group -- Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier and transfer Alex Murphy -- reads at least on paper as an offense-first unit, which is fine. But to avoid the pratfalls of Donovan’s other go-around with youth (post-championship run), he will need to coerce at least average D out of the Gators.

Kentucky -- It will take some digging to find a real weakness on this loaded Wildcats team, but since the sky is the limit and the expectations are somehow even higher, it’s fair to look for a potential stumbling block.

And for Kentucky, it will be defense, specifically perimeter defense.

The Wildcats were vulnerable there last season, allowing opponents to connect on 32 percent of attempts beyond the arc. The Harrison twins struggled to stretch themselves, so coach John Calipari will need big improvement from them this season.

Kentucky has enough frontcourt players to field a B team of rim protectors, but how the Cats’ backcourt defends will go a long way toward determining just how successful this team will be.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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