Numerical Proof...It's a Historically Good Defense

Feb. 19, 2013

By Frank Mercogliano, Asst. A.D./Communications

There is good defense, great defense, and then there is what the 2012-13 New Mexico Lobos have strung together. That would be historically good defense...like defense that hasn't been seen in the Duke City in a half-century defense. The numbers are truly astounding.

While statistically the defense can be backed up pretty easily, the eye-test is the first gauge for many. Without fail, the Lobos have been heralded as a relentless defensive team, drawing praise from opposing beat writers to opposing coaches. The Lobos have been stepping it up on the defensive end all season long. What that has meant to this point is a 22-4 record and a 9-2 conference mark, good for a half-game lead on second-place Colorado State, and at least a three-game lead on the rest of the conference.

The best thing about New Mexico's defensive prowess is it can be shown through the traditional stats, or through the newer analytical statistics. Either way, what UNM is doing on the defensive end is truly something special.

Perhaps the easiest statistic to showcase this is scoring average and defensive field goal percentage, two of the traditional statistics.

UNM this season has harassed opponents into a .392 field goal percentage. That number would be behind only last year's .384 that was posted for the best mark in the last 47 years (dating back to the 1963-64 season). To put that in another way...coach Steve Alford was not yet born when that happened. However, if UNM keeps it up, the team will have held opponents under 40 percent shooting in back-to-back years, and that hasn't happened since holding opponents to shooting .386 in 1956-57, and .372 in 1957-58, which is 55 years ago.

New Mexico's Jamal Fenton, left, reaches to steal the ball from New Mexico State's Terrel de Rouen during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Las Cruces, N.M., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. New Mexico's Kendall Williams watches at rear. (AP Photo/Victor Calzada)


It was so long ago that California baseball didn't exist yet as the Dodgers and Giants wouldn't play in Los Angeles or San Francisco for another month. It was also so long ago that the Beatles weren't even the Beatles...they were the Quarrymen, and they hadn't officially ever recorded anything yet. Gary Oldman, Prince Albert of Monaco, Alec Baldwin, Drew Carey, Mitch Albom, Prince, Kevin Bacon, Mark Cuban, and Michael Jackson were all born since that last happened.

New Mexico's defensive scoring average is 60.3, and should that dip into the 50s (which is a distinct possibility), that would make it two years in a row as UNM held opponents to a 59.3 scoring average last year. The last time UNM held opponents to an average of under 60 points in back-to-back years? 1963-65 as UNM registered a 57.2 defensive scoring average in 1963-64, and a 55.7 in 1964-65.

Those two numbers were recorded well prior to the advent of the shot clock, and that brings us to the analytical statistics that many of today's media members tout, such as Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated, Jon Rothstein of CBS, and Mike DeCoursey of the Sporting News.

Ken Pomeroy's analytical site KenPom.com is the main site for the new statistical databases and it shows what a special season this year is defensively for New Mexico. Pomeroy bases a team's offensive and defensive prowess not on points allowed per game, but on points per possession. He then multiplies that number by 100 to get his defensive efficiency ranking, which is basically how many points a team would allow if there were exactly 100 possessions in a game.

Statistically this is a great way to factor which team is better defensively, because it takes into account the tempo of a game. If a team plays uptempo, runs, and allows 70 points a game, is that a better defensive team that slows it down, runs the shot clock to two on every possession, and allows 60 points? Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rating allows for that comparison. And in terms of defensive efficiency, the Lobos would be hard pressed to do better.

New Mexico's defensive efficiency rating is 86.2, which ranks eighth nationally in defense according to KenPom, ahead of such teams as Cincinnati, Syracuse, Indiana, and Michigan State, all teams that are considered the best defensive teams in the nation.

UNM faring well in KenPom's defensive efficiency ratings is nothing new under Alford. The following are UNM's efficiency ratings and national rankings since the 2002-03 season, which is how far back Pomeroy goes.

Year	Coach		Def. Eff.    Ntnl. Rk.
2002-03	Ritchie McKay	 108.2		277
2003-04	Ritchie McKay	 101.9		172
2004-05 Ritchie McKay	  94.7		 63
2005-06 Ritchie McKay	  96.8		 95
2006-07 Ritchie McKay	 104.5		196
2007-08	Steve Alford	  90.5		 25
2008-09 Steve Alford	  94.6		 58
2009-10 Steve Alford	  96.4		 90
2010-11 Steve Alford  	  95.9		 66
2011-12 Steve Alford	  89.7		 16
2012-13 Steve Alford	  86.2		  8

Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings showcase a glaring difference in UNM's 2009-10 team that went 30-5. That squad ranked 90th in efficiency, and statistically was the lowest rated of Alford's six teams. This year's team is the best rated defense of the bunch.

It's really been UNM's defensive effort that has allowed the Lobos to shoot just .411 from the field through 26 games and yet be one of eight teams in the top 25 without back-to-back losses, and to sit at 22-4, the third time in four years that the Lobos have gone at least 22-4.

The Lobos are also rebounding the basketball on defense, grabbing 73.6 percent of all potential defensive rebounds, a statistic that ranks ninth nationally among all defenses. The Lobos are the only team in the nation to rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and in defensive rebounding percentage.

Of course, the easiest way to see how a team is doing, at least on an individual game basis is simple...did the other team hit its season average? When playing the Lobos, that answer is usually no. New Mexico has held its last 17 teams under their entire season scoring average, including 11 of those by double-digits points.

Team		Season	Game	Diff
Valpo		71.1	52	-19.1
NMSU		68.4	58	-10.4
NMSU		68.4	63	-5.3
So. Dakota St.	73.7	70	-3.7
Cincinnati	69.8	54	-15.8
Saint Louis	68.5	60	-8.5
UNLV		73.3	60	-13.3
Fresno State	59.2	45	-14.2
Boise State	73.8	63*	-10.8
Colorado St.	73.8	61	-12.7
San Diego State	69.7	55	-14.7
Wyoming 	62.1	59	-3.1
Nevada		68.1	62	-6.1
Air Force	72.5	58	-14.5
UNLV		73.3	64	-9.3
Fresno State	59.2	48	-11.2
Boise State	73.8	50	-23.8

The last time an opponent scored more points than its current season average was USC, which scored 67 and has a current scoring average of 66.3. The first Boise State game was tied at 63 at the end of regulation, so that is the number used.

The Lobos do it all defensively-they lock down and force poor shooting nights, they rebound and they block shots (Alex Kirk has 44 blocked shots, which is actually more than 15 entire teams currently). With a 22-4 record, a shot at a fourth regular season conference title in the last five years, a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last four years virtually assured and a national ranking in 12 of the last 13 week, the Lobos are quickly becoming a household name. When basketball teams become household names, they usually have a calling card. Sure, UNM's calling card can be The Pit (90-11 at home under Alford, including playing to 99.7 percent capacity of the final 12 games of the season) or it could be UNM's road success, with a 44-29 road record under Alford.

However, like the zone defense to Syracuse, New Mexico's calling card should be its defense. A defense of historically good proportions, which is fitting, because UNM is currently on a historically successful run under Steve Alford, and as they say... "Defense wins championships".