“I had to turn it off because I have to find a way for us to score 40 against Virginia,” White said Friday afternoon as the Florida Gators (25-8) prepared to face UVa (23-10) in the second round of the East Regional Saturday (8:40 p.m.).
Most coaches fret about trying to score 40 against Virginia. The Cavaliers are the top-ranked defensive team in the country and they’ve earned their reputation as a grind it out team that imposes its will on an opponent, forcing teams to eat up most of the shot clock looking for an opening only to heave up something with little chance to go in as the clock nears 0.
Virginia on defense is like watching a belt sander go to work on a rough piece of wood. It looks pretty rough and sounds terrible for nearly the entire process but when the work is done, you’ve got something beautiful to show for the effort. When Virginia plays, the beauty is in the final product. Don’t pay attention to how ugly it looks for 40 minutes but pay attention to the end result. Tony Bennett-coached teams may not have that flashy look of a Kentucky or a Duke or North Carolina, but very few teams in college basketball win as consistently as the Cavaliers, whose entire culture is built on getting stops and winning ugly.
“We are who we are,” Bennett said Friday. “I think it’s okay to make guys defend. That’s going to carry over for their professional career. I try to teach them to play the game the right way and whatever gives us a chance to win but if someone doesn’t think it’s for them, I make no apologies for how we play. It’s our way.”
Fans might think there is a certain amount of ugliness in the Virginia way but White, whose Gators just happen to rank fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, sees the beauty in what the Cavaliers do.
The hand-to-hand combat and physical nature of how Virginia plays the game produces win after win and the Cavaliers always rank among the nation’s defensive leaders.
“They’re just extremely consistent,” White said. “They play within themselves offensively. They’re very, very skilled and then defensively, it’s a beautiful thing. They just don’t make mistakes. They sit down in their stance and shut you out.”
The Gators have faced some grind it out teams this season. They split with South Carolina, which plays a similar hard-nosed style. The three games the Gators lost to Vanderbilt were all one possession at a time skirmishes decided in the last minutes. UF won slowdown affairs with Miami, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
None of those teams really played defense the way Virginia does, or at least the way Virginia has in the past. Thursday afternoon when Virginia knocked off UNC-Wilmington in the first round, a lot of defense was played but it wasn’t the usual tooth pull that is typical of the Cavaliers. A typical Virginia game is in the high 50s or low 60s but no this one. The Seahawks were quicker than Virginia at nearly every position on the floor and for much of the first half threatened to turn the game into a track meet. But, Virginia went small to match UNC-W and somehow got control of the tempo to win the game, 76-71. Once Virginia slowed the pace the remainder of the game was played perhaps faster than Bennett would have preferred but at least it wasn’t the up and down style preferred by the Seahawks.
Florida’s challenge will be to make Virginia play the game faster while utilizing its overall size advantage plus superior depth. With Isaiah Wilkins (6-7, 225) almost certainly out of the game with a lingering case of strep throat that just isn’t getting any better, Virginia may play a good portion of its game with the Gators with four guards surrounding 6-11 center Jack Salt. Past Salt there really isn’t a presence in the paint. In the win over UNC-W, the Cavaliers played more than 20 minutes with what was essentially a 5-guard lineup.
Big or small, however, Virginia’s philosophy isn’t going to change. There will be adjustments for sure, but it will still be man-to-man in a physical style in which nobody backs down. Big guys will guard small guys and small guys will guard big ones.
“They have a lot of guys who can guard 1 through 5 on their team so they’re a lot like us, very versatile,” Florida’s Devin Robinson said. Robinson led the Gators Thursday with 24 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 blocked shots.
Florida has that same versatility with many interchangeable parts but the Gators do have superior size (6-9 Kevarrius Hayes starts at center with Robinson at 6-9 and Justin Leon at 6-8 filling out the front line). The Gators bring scorers off the bench like Chris Chiozza and Canyon Barry. Chiozza came off the bench against East Tennessee to score 14 points, grab 5 rebounds and hand out 3 assists. Barry scored 7 and came up with 3 rebounds and an assist.
“We can have a night when a guy off the bench goes for 25 or one of the starters goes for 25 or something like that,” Chiozza said. “That’s hard for a defense to prepare for because they can’t focus in on one guy when we have so many pieces that can contribute.”
Robinson figures to be the ultimate matchup nightmare for Virginia since he’s tall enough to shoot over every one of their perimeter players and has the quickness and hops to get to the rim and finish. Another matchup problem will be Hayes, who dominated the paint against an East Tennessee team that’s taller than Virginia. Hayes scored 7 points and grabbed 7 rebounds but he blocked 2 shots, altered at least 6 others, came away with 6 steals and tipped 3-4 passes away that teammates grabbed and pushed the other way up the court.
“Their guards are so fast at getting into the paint,” Virginia point guard London Perrantes said.
So how do the Cavaliers compensate? Bennett says it’s a matter of forcing
Florida to play the game at a style and pace of Virginia’s choosing.
“We’re going to have to get it to our kind of game in terms of making them play against a set defense, make them shoot the majority of the shots contested, take care of the ball,” Bennett said. “We’re going to have to move them. We’re going to have to scree them, move them, knock down some outside shots. Hopefully, there’s some opportunistic baskets for us in transition, but it’s just going to be kind of a war of attrition. I know they’re going to try to get their style and can we outlast them?”
White anticipates this is going to be a last man standing type of basketball brawl.
“It’s going to be smash mouth,” White said. “It’s going to be, again, two good defenses.”
CHIOZZA’S TURNAROUND: When Florida lost two straight games in January, Chris Chiozza paid a visit to Mike White’s office, ironically the day of the well chronicled team meeting that essentially changed the Gators’ mindset and got them going on a winning streak that paved the way for Florida’s #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
White says Chiozza confessed, “I haven’t been playing well. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m focused on the wrong things.”
At that points, White says Chiozza “made a big maturity decision … he comes in and says, ‘Coach, I’m going to do whatever I have to do just to help this team win,’ and naturally, he starts playing his butt off. Since then, he’s been the best version of Chris Chiozza and certainly we hope that continues. I expect him to have a huge senior year and hopefully can have a really strong finish to this, his junior season.”