ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida basketball coach Mike White said he learned the only downside to being in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
It makes watching the NCAA Tournament very challenging when given a roughly 48-hour window to prepare for an opponent like the No. 5-seeded Virginia team his No. 4 Gators will face in the second round Saturday night.
“Last night I had to turn the damn thing off. It was so frustrating,” White said Friday. “I wanted to watch Florida Gulf Coast and Florida State, I wanted to watch Xavier-Maryland and I had to turn it off because of course we’ve got to figure out a way we can score 40 against Virginia.”
The Cavaliers (23-10) boast the stingiest defense in Division I basketball, allowing only 56.1 points per game.
They seek to force teams into a slower-paced half-court game that doesn’t play to the strengths of Florida, which likes to use its own highly-regarded defense to set up turnovers and easy points in transition.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has had his system rolling for a while now, and White had no shortage of compliments for his opponent.
“What makes them good? Everything. They’re so sound. Year in and year out they’re in the top 5 in defensive efficiency in the country, which would put them in the argument to be the best defensive program in college basketball,” he said. “They make you play differently. We’re a team that has had success in transition offense, in space in the open floor, off turnovers — they don’t turn the ball over — and we’re a team that’s struggled at times in the half court. We’re going to have to score in the half court.
“Obviously we’re going to try to score in transition — I don’t know how many opportunities will be there. They’re extremely physical, they’re extremely sound and disciplined,” White said. “They’re a strong team, they’re a quick-footed team, they move quick laterally, they’ve got good length, they block shots at the rim. There’s not a deficiency defensively.”
Virginia is not exactly unbeatable, though.
The Cavaliers are just 7-7 over their last 14 games, but when they’re on, they’re really, really on — like holding high-scoring North Carolina to just 43 points in a 10-point win back on Feb. 27. The Tar Heels only got to the line for 7 free throw attempts in that game and shot just 27.6 percent after halftime.
Bennett was quick to note that his defense didn’t play one of its stronger games Thursday in a 76-71 win over No. 12-seed UNC Wilmington, which jumped out to an early 15-point lead.
“Our defense wasn’t great yesterday, and there’s times it hasn’t been good. When our defense is right, we can play with a lot of people and be successful. When it’s not, it’s hard,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s brand of stifling offensive oppression is the “Pack Line Defense.” The main principle is that every player but the one aggressively defending the ball-handler remains packed inside an imaginary 16-foot arc, in position to help on penetration or jump out to contest a shooter.
The Cavaliers are led overall by senior point guard London Perrantes, who scored 24 in the win over UNC Wilmington. They are anchored inside by 6-foot-11 center Jack Salt, but they’ll likely be without 6-foot-7 forward Isaiah Wilkins (illness), their other primary interior presence. At one point in the game Thursday, the Cavs compensated by trotting out a five-guard lineup, but Bennett doesn’t expect that to use that look against a bigger Florida team.
Whoever is on the court for the Cavs, their vaunted defense depends on each piece working in concert with the others to minimize breakdowns or openings.
“Our defense is really a team-oriented system, and it’s about being more continuous than perhaps is natural for a lot of guys,” Bennett said. “You can’t make one effort, okay, then stop. You’ve got to be good off the ball. You have to have stance and vision all the time. You have to learn, instead of being reactionary, you’ve got to be able to anticipate. The good teams can anticipate. And it’s just this continuous battle. And it’s a mindset, too, that we’re going to try to outlast and impose our will on the offense, which is challenging. And we couldn’t do it yesterday for most of the stretches.”
Florida assistant coach Dusty May spent the last week scouting Virginia, and the players watched film of the Cavs after their win Thursday and again Friday. They also had a 90-minute practice session in the Amway Center to work on the gameplan.
“They’re different,” Florida forward Devin Robinson said. “In the SEC I’ve never seen a team play like the way they play, traditional two bigs. Their bigs, all they do is rebound and get open dunks and stuff. And that type of slowdown offense that they run is real methodical and it’s real different and nothing I’ve seen this year, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
But Florida can play defense too, as Bennett made sure to note. The Gators have bought into White’s defense-first philosophy pose their own test to a Virginia offense that relies heavily on the scoring and playmaking of Perrantes.
“It’s going to be smash-mouth. It’s going to be two good defenses,” White said. “I’d like to credit our guys. Our guys have really defended well. We’re a very good defensive team in our own right. Hopefully it’s a game down the stretch where we can find ways to score it against their prolific D a little bit better than they can do against ours.”