Forty years and about two weeks on, they will play the first NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship game in all the closing Mondays ever since to feature two programs debuting on the elevated stage. Yet this matter will bring something far less starry: When Virginia (34-3) opposes Texas Tech (31-6), it could serve as juicy mostly for connoisseurs of the beautiful ugliness of defense. Suffocation (Texas Tech) will oppose strangulation (Virginia).
The expected attendance: Oh, about 72,000.
Somehow, after 39 final Mondays with 78 spots so heavily hoarded by Dukes (nine appearances in the title game in that span), North Carolinas (seven), Kentuckys (five), Kansases (five), Michigans (five) and Connecticuts (four), not to mention seven more schools with three berths each, the final has found itself some freshness and otherness. In that process, it also has found the promise of bruises.
Virginia guard Kihei Clark expects “a grinder of a game.” Texas Tech’s Brandone Francis said Sunday, “I love eating ice cream, and it is no different than playing defense,” a novel concept in a world that does not typically equate the two. Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite said, “We have to make sure we hit them with a lot of screens.” Texas Tech’s Norense Odiase referred to assistant Mark Adams as sort of the team’s “defensive coordinator,” thereby introducing apt football terminology. Virginia’s Jack Salt said, “They flood, they go for the ball, and they scrap, so it’s going to be a battle tomorrow.”
Even the statistics grind against each other like grotesqueries on a dance floor. In adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, Virginia stands fifth, Texas Tech first. In adjusted offensive efficiency, Virginia stands third, Texas Tech 28th, also a lofty ranking given the 353 participants in the sport. Texas Tech would be the 237th-fastest-playing team in the country. Virginia would be 353rd.
Texas Tech springs a lot of turnovers, such as Odiase’s remarkable steal from Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman with 82 seconds to go Saturday night, when Odiase simply ripped the damned ball from Tillman’s hands. Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga, one of the litany of extremely good teams felled by Texas Tech this tournament, coined a word and the Red Raiders “really, really handsy.” At 15.7 forced turnovers per game, Texas Tech’s defense stands 22nd in the land.
At 8.9 turnovers committed per game, Virginia’s offense stands at No. 1.
There’s so much chatter about defense around here that Chris Beard, the remarkable third-year Texas Tech coach, got his feelings a tad wounded, justly. It seems nobody has noticed his team’s improved offense. “Somebody here ought to take a look at our offense the last 30 to 50 days of the season,” he said. “It’s all related. But no problem on the defense.”
So he talked some defense. In the talk of defense, every actor in this rugged theater seemed to agree that Virginia’s defense differs from Texas Tech’s defense. “They do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them, controlling the pace of the game, not letting a lot of things get into the paint,” Odiase said. “We do a good job of keeping teams on the side, frustrating them, getting them out of their actions. I don’t know if that’s similar or not, but we do a good job of taking opponents out of what they want to do.”
Virginia’s pack-line defense doesn’t look all that much like a storm. It tries to keep you from thinking you can go messing around down low, while keeping you taking improbable shots from up high. Texas Tech’s swarming defense tries to force you to the sideline. It tries to make you feel you’re not welcome in the middle of the court. It tries to make you feel outcast and lonely and sad.
Given that Buffalo averaged 85 points and got 58 against Texas Tech; Michigan averaged 70 and got 44; Gonzaga averaged 88 and got 69; and Michigan State averaged 78 and got 51; and given that Oklahoma averaged almost 72 points and got 51 against Virginia; Oregon averaged 70 and got 49; Purdue averaged 76 and got 70 in regulation because Carsen Edwards made superhuman shots; and Auburn averaged almost 80 and got 62, there has been so much sadness this early spring.
“First, defensively, Texas Tech — no, they’re different from us,” 10th-year Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re really special defensively. I have the utmost respect for how they play, but it is a different system. . . . They’re very physical. Their ability to take your ball, and just look at the games in the tournament, and what they’ve done to some of the great offensive teams has been so impressive.
“When you try to play hard defense, you understand the value of offensively how mentally tough you have to be, how sound you have to be, and you have to take what the defense gives you. But it’s a challenge. When our defense is at its best, it really makes people work to get contested shots. Obviously, Texas Tech, in their own way, they make people work, and they swarm. So understanding that and not just saying, ‘Oh, they haven’t seen our offense. . . .’ That would be false confidence. But understand and, hey, it takes hard, tough offense, and you work to get some quality shots, and then you turn around and play the same way against them.”
Said Beard: “We have interchangeable parts. We don’t have guys who are ones, twos, threes, fours, fives defensively. We have players. . . . I ask recruits all the time, ‘What was Michael Jordan? Was he a two? No. One?' In my opinion, he was the best post player in basketball with his back to the basket in his career. LeBron [James], what is he? He’s a player. I think defensively we have a lot of players. We’re not in much position. This allows us to switch and guard different people and stuff like that.”
Following upon a 13-3 Super Bowl only an X-and-O connoisseur could relish, here comes a Magic-less, Larry-less national title game that might end up needing its defenders of the concept of defense. “It’s just pride,” Odiase said of the art. “It’s, like, in the park, one-on-one against the guy.” The amount of pride, indeed, might exceed the amount of points.