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Virginia vs. Florida State: Two Great Defenses, Two Contrasting Styles

When the Seminoles travel to Charlottesville tomorrow to take on the Cavaliers, fans will be treated to a second matchup between two of the nation's best defensive teams. Tony Bennett and Leonard Hamilton both emphasize commitment to 40 minutes of defense, and this has shown up in the numbers. Hamilton, in his 10th season at FSU, is on his way to a 4th straight year in the top 15 in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings. After raising two top-10 defenses at Washington State, Bennett's reign at UVA has finally turned the corner this year.

Here's a comparison of some key defensive stats - the latter four are what are commonly considered the "Four Factors" to winning basketball games:

Virginia Florida State
Adj. defensive efficiency 85.5 (4) 86.8 (9)
Adj. Tempo 60.2 (339) 67.8 (98)
Effective FG% 43.2 (8) 43.3 (9)
Turnover % 21.4 (124) 22.8 (57)
Defensive Rebound % 74.6 (3) 68.1 (161)
FTA / FGA 30.5 (50) 35.7 (167)

Let's take a look at three things. First, what do these numbers mean? Second, what are the stylistic differences that produce these numbers? Finally, how could UVA's offense take advantage of FSU's weaknesses to come away with the big win?

So, for those that don't follow Ken Pomeroy's words as gospel, here's a quick review of what these stats mean and what produces them.

Adjusted defensive efficiency is the average number of points a team allows per 100 possessions (adjusted for strength of opponent) - thus, UVA allows 85.5 points per 100 possessions (or .855 points per possession). If you multiply that .855 by adjusted tempo (60.2 possessions per game), you get approximately our average points allowed per game, 51.5. Both teams have top-10 overall defenses, with UVA solidly in the "elite" category. Conveniently, the NCAA average points per 100 possessions is 1. Another note: if one leaves out the adjustment for opponent strength, Virginia boasts the #1 defense in the country - no team has been scored on less often than the Hoos.

Effective field-goal percentage is a measure of field-goal % that accounts for 3-pointers. (If a team shoots 2 for 4 from behind the arc, that's 6 points and equally good as shooting 3 for 4 from two-point range). As you can see, the two defenses are essentially as good at limiting opponent shooting percentage.

Turnover percentage is the % of opponent possessions that result in turnovers. Florida State has the edge in this category, and it's all because of their ability to block shots - FSU is 3rd nationally in block percentage at 17.6%, more than twice as high as UVA's 8.6%.

Defensive rebound percentage is a much better measure of prowess on the boards than simply using margin, which is dependent upon missed shots. UVA has a solid edge in this department; despite fans panicking about tall, physical teams dominating the boards, 3rd in the nation is pretty damn good.

The last number there, FTA/FGA, is the amount of free throws the defense has allowed per field goal attempt. So, UVA's opponent's have shot 30.5% as many free-throws as they have field goals. Virginia has the edge once again, performing well in this statistic as long as Dwayne Gladden is not officiating.

Virginia and Florida State arrive at their defensive success through drastically different styles. Here's some basic tenets of each.

If you are reading this blog, there's a pretty good chance you know and love the Pack Line Defense. The on-ball defender comes out and pressures his man, while the other four Hoos stay inside the "pack," by keeping within an imaginary line just inside the three-point arc. A pass will send a different defender quickly out toward his man to contest a potential shot, while the previous on-ball defender drops back into the pack.

Strategically, a main goal of the scheme is to keep opponents from being able to penetrate to the hoop; defenders force middle, rather than baseline, where help will await him. On entry passes, the proximity of the help makes doubling the post easier. Instead, the offense is forced to settle for outside shots, which will ideally be well-contested by players with their hands high. Another benefit is in rebounding; having four men packed close to the hoop makes it easier to turn and grab a board, even if one's 7-foot center isn't playing.

Florida State employs Leonard Hamilton's "Junkyard Defense," which basically attempts to do the opposite of everything the Pack Line does. It all starts with recruiting, where Hamilton recruits long, athletic players who will commit to defense. After that, he sends his players out and tells them to guard in a system based on simplicity.

While Virginia runs a sagging man-to-man, Florida State employs a pressure defense; there is no "imaginary line" stopping defenders, as they guard shooters far beyond the perimeter. Rather than allow passes and expect help when needed, the Seminoles are always out to deny them, especially on post entries. UVA hedges hard on screens, a complex technique that has taken players some time to master; Florida State often just switches them. Beyond that, the Seminoles rely on an old-school, hard-nosed style, as Eamonn Brennan describes it:

What you see is what you get, and what you get is an old-school, defense-first ideology outfitted with new-school athletes. It's a Division I clinic in the classic defensive fundamentals. Move your feet. Call out screens. See ball and man. Close out shooters. Apply furious pressure and don't ever let up.

How does Virginia overcome this? Here are three keys:

1. It all starts off with avoiding the turnover bug. When the teams matched up in early February, the Hoos turned the ball over 20 times in their 63 possessions - that's right, almost one-third of the time we had the ball, we gave it up without a shot. Mike Scott was directly responsible for 7 of these, though blame also lies at the hands of his guards who got him the ball in awkward spots. Against a defense predicated on pressure, we could expect a few more turnovers than usual; however, twenty is not acceptable. To Virginia's credit, the Hoos forced 19 turnovers. Florida State is prone to these on offense, and it's important to win this battle.

2. Florida State has done a poor job of keeping their opponents off the line this year - the overall number is listed in the chart above, but they are also the worst in the ACC in conference play, allowing .42 free throws per field goal attempted. On the other hand, UVA's offense has also done a miserable job getting to line of late, and is last in the stat on that side of the ball (.23 FTA/FGA in conference play). Something's gotta give. When Jontel Evans gets pressured 25 feet from the basket, look for him to locate driving lanes to the rim. Mike Scott has been receiving the ball further and further from the basket, and I would expect getting higher-percentage shots inside, and likely drawing fouls in the process, to be a point of emphasis for him.

3. The obvious one: Hit shots. Especially three-pointers. The team did a fair job in the first matchup, shooting 47% from the field and 6 of 18 from behind the arc (including a 3-8 day from Harris, 2-3 by Brogdon, and 1-5 from Zeglinski). Defending the three-point line hasn't been Florida State's biggest strength, especially in conference play, where teams shoot 34.8% (8th in the ACC). Additionally, opponents have taken 35.9% of their shots from three-point range, the 2nd most in the ACC. We've seen the team lose some games this season with miserable long-range shooting, but if they avoid another off-night, the Hoos will be in good position to win.

In terms of efficiency, the only better defensive match-ups on paper that have taken place this season are the showdowns between Big 10 powerhouses Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. I expect UVA to play consistent defense all night; how the offense adjusts to overcome Florida State's pressure will determine whether the Hoos earn their 5th Senior Night victory in the last 6 years and lock up a March Madness berth for the first time since 2007.