Josh Merkel and Randolph-Macon have built a monstrous defense

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 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.

2019-20 Tennessee Basketball Preview: Defense

There are two previews available for the 2019-20 Tennessee basketball team on this here website. You’re reading the Defensive preview, which exclusively focuses on what each returning player brings to the team on the ball-stopping side, along with what newcomers can do for a rebuilding program. To read about Offense, click here. Onward! (This is all on one page since it’s shorter.)



2018-19: 31 steals, 11 blocks, 1.6 DBPM, 0.88 DPIPM, 33.3% FG%, 44.1% eFG%, 70th-percentile on Synergy. Consistently a plus defender at Tennessee, though his status as Tennessee’s best defender is less consistent. Notable for owning Gonzaga’s offensive actions late in the game:

Less notable for being Tennessee’s single best closeout guy. Got unlucky in 2018-19 (opponents hit 38.3% of guarded C&S, 31.8% of opens) at times.

Good: Still doesn’t foul often, still a quietly good defender at the rim:

Still Tennessee’s best closeout defender.

His PIPM dropped some, but he’s never had a negative defensive rating through three seasons and a lot of his fall could be blamed on bad jump shot luck.

Bad: Not a ton? He’s an okay isolation defender that gets burned sometimes:

And, through his career, has struggled at times defending dribble handoffs.

This is not to say he’s terrible at either, just that these are his lone weak spots on an otherwise consistent resume.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: He’s not a terribly aggressive guy, but Bowden had one of the more unusual runs of steals I’ve seen in a long time: 12 straight games with at least one steal in 2018-19, but never more than two in any game. He just…is consistently there.


2018-19: 35 steals, 3 blocks, 0.9 DBPM, 0.63 DPIPM, 33% FG%, 42.9% aFG%, 65th-percentile. Where Bowden is consistent, Turner can run extremely hot and cold. He can either be purely locked in (held Tyson Carter to 6 points on 9 shots in SECT) or locked in deep struggle (allowed Hassani Gravett, of all people, to go 4 of 6 from three). Turner’s highs, to my eyes, are higher – he destroyed Kentucky’s backcourt in the 71-52 win – but his lows are far lower.

Good: He’s Tennessee’s best pick-and-roll defender on the roster. Turner ranked in the 85th-percentile in 2018-19, per Synergy, in P&RBH defense. He was both good at forcing weak shots:

And at forcing ugly turnovers.

Considering he was in the 44th-percentile in this play type a year prior, you could see this as a small sample size thing, but it looks like he legitimately got better.

Bad: Where Bowden thrives at closeouts, Turner frequently leaves his man open to get off a good look; Auburn crushed him on these:

He’s also never been a good isolation defender and struggles to stay with more physical guards at the rim.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s pretty likely that even if he does leave shooters open at the same rates, Turner won’t allow opposing players to shoot 43.1% from three in half-court offense. That should fall, but will it be because he got better at closeouts more frequently or because he’s luckier?


2018-19: 18 steals, 25 blocks, 6.3 DBPM, 2.20 DPIPM, 32.4% FG%, 37.5% aFG%, 83rd-percentile. Those numbers are going to surprise some fans, but the problem with Fulkerson has never been his defense. Largely, the Pals Man stays with post players well, rebounds strongly, blocks shots, and forces turnovers. Those are all hallmarks of a quality option on defense, even if his offensive capabilities are largely lacking.

Good: Only Kyle Alexander had a higher Blocks/100 Possessions rating, and he played half of Alexander’s minutes.

Fulkerson’s work is never pretty, but it’s efficient for a reason; he really is solid at staying in front of most SEC big men and forcing tough misses. Per possession, he tied for Tennessee’s best post-up defense, though it’s obviously a small sample. Also generally fine at closing out on the perimeter.

Bad: In general, you don’t love the idea of John Fulkerson being forced to defend in isolation. He’s at his best working within a team context; singling him out is rarely going to work out, as evidenced by Will Rayman of Colgate immediately going at him 13 seconds after he’s subbed in.

Plus, Fulkerson has always struggled with foul trouble (6.2 fouls per 40 in 2018-19, highest among rotation players); it’s going to be tough to reconcile this while allowing him to stay strong defensively.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Fulkerson, of all players, had the highest Steal% (2.4%) of any rotation player on Tennessee’s roster. Can this sustain itself? Likely not. But it’s time to give him a little more credit for being a solid defensive option.


2018-19: 2 steals, 1 block, 0.1 DBPM, -1.52 DPIPM. Johnson, of the returnees, is easily Tennessee’s worst on-ball defender. Frequently, Johnson doesn’t seem to be able to stay in front of much of anyone; he’s poor at closeouts, despite not being asked to do much. Despite being a relatively conservative defender, he picked up 17 fouls in 151 minutes last year, which is above the national average. Alright, I promise there’s positives here.

Good: He’s lanky and can move somewhat? I guess? Here’s one of his two steals:

And his only block:

He left 56% of opponent catch-and-shoots open despite spending essentially all of his time on the court defending the perimeter. Not Great!

Bad: Well, he’s not good at closeouts at all.

Johnson has a high Synergy output entirely based on opponents hitting just 1 of their 8 guarded three-point attempts. (Small sample size.) I have him as defending *one* drive to the basket all season, and it was an and-one for Tennessee Tech.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Well, he did force seven misses on those guarded attempts. If he learns to guard more threes, then positive plays like this:

Could reasonably become more common.


2018-19: 9 steals, 15 blocks, 3.8 DBPM, 0.54 DPIPM. What you think about Yves Pons is likely determined by if you prefer process over results or results over process. Largely, Pons’ process isn’t bad – he guarded 67% of catch-and-shoots in 2018-19 and held opponents to a 6-of-26 hit rate at the rim – but his results were forgettable. Add it to his inability to force turnovers and a tendency to go invisible, and…well, you know what’s coming.

Good: I mean, he did guard 67% of threes attempted when he was the primary defender. It’s not Pons’ fault, necessary, that opponents hit an insane 43.9% of their threes against him and 34.2% against all other players when he had one of the better guarding splits on the team. Like, this is perfectly fine:

Pons also is a pretty good shot blocker, which is unsurprising as he can leap out of the gym.

Bad: There are times where it doesn’t seem like Pons knows where he’s supposed to be, which is, ah, not good.

It’s not as frequent as some fans may think, but it’s a clear sign that his defensive awareness still has quite the amount of room to grow. Also, he struggles with bad fouls that add to the frustration levels.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s almost a certainty that his 3PT% allowed won’t be as bad as last year; studies have shown that it’s much more about preventing threes in the first place. If Pons remains good enough on closeouts like these:

The numbers will improve greatly.



It’s hard to tell too much about James, considering he hasn’t played a second against college-level competition yet. However: we can assume someone with his athletic range will factor greatly into Tennessee’s levels of defensive success. ESPN isn’t very high on his defense for now: “While he has tools that should eventually translate defensively, he needs to get serious about that end of the floor so he can be a two-way player of impact. He still stands up too much defending the ball, is undisciplined with his close-outs, and needs to be more alert on the help-side of the floor.” They also said this, though: “Defensively, he uses his length and reach to stay in front of the ball and has a good degree of future potential on that end with his physical profile and ability to cover the court.” Basically: the same as 99.9% of all freshmen. I’ll take it.


Unlike James, a couple of Q&As and highlight videos lead me to believe Nkamhoua took defense seriously in high school. Here’s a highlight from a late 2018 Q&A: “I try to play very good defense every single day; I know if my offense is not working then I know my defense is where I’ll have it.” That’s an attitude Rick Barnes loves to have, and it will remind you of another unheralded high school recruit that just went to the NBA. Nkamhoua is long, rangy, and seems like a guy that can frustrate opponents if he’s as dialed in as he tells us.


Neither of these two will play very much, and neither should; both are too thin to propose any serious resistance to a player 6’4” or taller. Gaines doesn’t have many scouting reports out there, but he told 247 recently that he “takes real pride in defense,” which makes him a great fit for Tennessee, of course. Pember averaged three blocks a game last year in high school and Bearden experimented at times with putting him on opposing guards, but there’s a large gap from Tennessee 3A play to the SEC. Both need the weight room, badly.


Euro Plastics has but two serious goals as a defender: block shots and get rebounds. When you are seven feet tall, these are the things you should be doing. Per 247, his teammates seem to like him (surprising!) and think he can be a good floor leader. Considering Kyle Alexander could be really, really good defensively, I’d keep my expectations low for Plastics as he transitions into the college game, but there’s a lot of potential here.


Just like offense, this will look quite a bit different, too. Tennessee’s finished 150th, 55th, 6th, and 42nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in four Barnes seasons; I don’t think they’ll be setting a new low by any means, though. In fact, the more I look at the newcomers, the more I think this will be the better side of the ball. Tennessee returns one excellent perimeter defender, a hot-and-cold one with the capacity to be excellent, an underrated post defender, and a couple of potentially useful pieces. Nearly all of the newcomers have discussed their enjoyment of defense publicly; I think this is a great sign for their level of care to come. Consider this an educated wild guess: Tennessee finishes 35th in KenPom’s Adjusted Defense rankings for 2019-20.