If I told you that the best defense in American college basketball resides in the state of Virginia, probably very few of you would enact real surprise. Everyone already knows that Virginia and Tony Bennett have been a purely dominant defensive program for the last decade, and it’s what got them their first national championship in nearly four decades. However, I do have a surprise for you: this article is not about the University of Virginia. Rather, it’s about a different, even better defense in Division III just 75 minutes to the east that allowed 0.842 points per possession this year:
Randolph-Macon College, located in Ashland, enters tomorrow’s Division III NCAA Tournament with a 26-2 record. Outside of a pair of slip-ups, both by single digits, they’ve been just about unbeatable this season. All but one opponent of their 29 this season, including an exhibition against D-1 Richmond, has been held to 70 points or less, with 10 showings of 50 points or fewer. It made it that much more surprising that head coach Josh Merkel’s initial reaction when I asked about his defense was the following: “I think our defense stinks right now!”
When I reached Merkel in January after a 28-point road win, he elaborated a little more. “Usually, I like being under the radar. I don’t even think that highly of our defense, but I know the numbers are good and we’ll take it.” Scoring against Randolph-Macon this season has become more stressful than watching Uncut Gems. The Yellow Jackets enter the Tournament forcing opponents to shoot 37.4% from the field and 29.2% from three. That eFG% of 43.1% would rank third-best in D-1 – one spot behind UVA, I might add – but shot defense isn’t all that Randolph-Macon does. The Yellow Jackets forced turnovers on 23.8% of opponent possessions this year, blocked 12.2% of two-point attempts, and rebounded 73.6% of opponent misses. If your shot even made it to the basket, much less went in, it was a mild success.
It’s no shock that Merkel finds inspiration in what happened last season in Charlottesville. “We model some of what we do on Virginia,” he notes, though he’s also quick to say it’s not a true pack-line defense. “We want to force shots over a contest, limit everyone to one shot, and do it as a team. I say ‘guard your yard, but cover for each other.’” It’s a brutalizing, tough defense that has made life miserable for nearly every visitor. Even Richmond, in their November exhibition, got out-rebounded by Randolph-Macon and barely topped a point per possession.
The Yellow Jackets can run out different defensive looks based on the opponent. Per Synergy, they ran a press on 217 possessions and a zone defense on 283 more. Continually pushing the opponent to find new, inventive ways to not turn the ball over is Merkel’s specialty. “We pressure the ball and shrink the floor. We try to keep the ball outside of the paint,” he says. In particular, his strong, rooted guards are a bother to get around. “We’ve seen how effective it can be when you have strong players defensively,” says Merkel. For a team with zero players taller than 6’7″ and no players heavier than Noah Lindsay’s 216 pounds, Randolph-Macon is reliant on a quality strength + conditioning program to get them over the top. It works, I’ve gotta say:
“We get really good guard play because our guards are committed to staying down and keeping the ball in front of them,” says Merkel. “They are not going to let that ball get to the second level of the defense as much. We don’t put a skinny guard out there, as we don’t want them to get bumped off their spots.” It’s a big part of why Randolph-Macon succeeds each night. Not only do the Yellow Jackets win the turnover battle most nights (by the old standard of turnover margin, Randolph-Macon averages a +6.3), they also don’t allow many, if any, open threes. This is just quality, tough perimeter defense:
It’s all about closing out hard and making an opponent know you’re there. Merkel tells me that on-ball pressure is what sets players apart. “A lot of it is air time, moving as the ball moves, and being there with a hot hand on the catch so no one feels comfortable shooting a rhythm three,” Merkel notes. “It needs to be a heavy contest with a hand and being there when he lands.”
This strategy has been wildly successful. As I’ve noted in the past, Ken Pomeroy studied three-point percentage and found that defenses have very little control over it for the most part. And yet: I think Randolph-Macon is really onto something. Over the last three years, the Yellow Jackets have held opponents to 31.9%, 30.1%, and now 29.2% from downtown. Considering that Divisions II and III haven’t moved the three-point line back yet like Division I has, this makes it even more impressive in an era of maximum three-point shooting.
In a true victory for a blog that has “stats” in its title, Merkel also let me know that he and the Randolph-Macon coaching staff are big on making sure they win three of KenPom’s Four Factors every night on the court. “We have three big stats – differential in field goal percentage, rebounding margin, and turnover margin,” says Merkel. For each of those, he wants to be +10%, +5, and +5 on any given night. On the season, they’ve actually come pretty darn close to hitting all three. Randolph Macon is shooting 8.7% better than opponents, out-rebounding opponents by +2.2 per game, and winning the turnover battle by +6.3.
“Last year, we were 2-4 when we lost two of those three stats. We were 25-0 when winning at least two of three,” says Merkel. “There’s hundreds of things that go into every game, but analytics and numbers are easy for our guys to see and understand at halftime so they know what needs to improve.” (A quick side note: Merkel and staff do not use Free Throw Rate as one of their main factors, because, in Merkel’s words, “we might be the worst in the country at it.” True to his remark, Randolph-Macon actually would rank dead last in Division I in offensive Free Throw Rate. You can get away with this when you are 26-2.)
As the Division III Tournament begins, Randolph-Macon is staring down what might be its best-ever shot at a national championship. The Yellow Jackets rank #3 in the D3Hoops.com poll, are a host team for the first two rounds, and are ranked higher than every opponent in their bracket but one (Wittenberg). When I asked Merkel what had to happen for his team to win a title, he said he wanted the offense to be much more loose and free, though not at the cost of sacrificing their defensive principles. “I think that’s what we’re striving for is getting to a point where everyone we put into the game is playing with utmost confidence,” says Merkel. It’s a noble goal to strive for. When your defense is putting every opponent in a figure-four leg-lock:
I’d say you’re pretty darn close.