Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett took some time to enumerate three of the main tenets of his vaunted pack-line defense Wednesday night. They’re the same principles he’s found himself repeating a lot lately in Virginia’s practices, but minutes after an 88-76 overtime loss at Pittsburgh, it’s clear his Cavaliers haven’t been measuring up.
“There’s three areas that I talk to our team about all the time that you gotta get an ‘A’ in,” Bennett started. The first is “transition defense — you don’t let the ball get behind you, get going out in transition. That didn’t happen against Florida State, we gave up too many transition buckets where guys would come down, just pull up, and shot in rhythm.”
Pittsburgh’s rhythm in the game just after that 60-58 loss to Florida State in Charlottesville was metronomic. The Panthers shot 53.7 percent shooting from the floor, the highest Virginia’s defense has allowed this season.
“The other is the ability to be a one-and-done team,” Bennett continued. “Shot goes up, you get people off the glass. Our pack defense positions us to be a good defensive rebounding team.”
Rebounds killed Virginia in Pittsburgh. The Panthers beat Virginia 42-24 on the boards, including 12 offensive rebounds for 21 second-chance points. Against Florida State, Virginia had just six offensive rebounds to the Seminoles’ 12.
Finally, “We didn’t keep the ball out of the paint,” Bennett concluded, touching on the third tenet. Pittsburgh scored 24 points inside the lane Virginia’s pack-line defense is designed to protect.
In all, the Cavaliers’ past two outings spell trouble, despite the fact that Bennett’s team is still the top-rated scoring defense in the nation. Pittsburgh’s 88 points were the most the Cavaliers have allowed since giving up 93 at North Carolina in a 12-point loss in February 2013.
It has been a tough two-game stretch of elite scorers testing Virginia’s defense. But Bennett has seen cracks in the foundation as the No. 11 Cavaliers (11-3, 1-2 ACC) prepare to host Wake Forest (10-5, 1-2) on Sunday.
“Defense isn’t something we can rest on . . . it’s an all-the-time-kinda-thing,” Bennett said Wednesday. “And it wasn’t on all the time. I just call it like I see it — maybe I’ll watch the tape and see it differently, but there were some big holes tonight that we can’t afford against teams of this caliber in this league.”
Where Virginia struggled with perimeter defense against Florida State, which made 8 of 15 three-point attempts, the Cavaliers were simply overpowered at times against Pittsburgh.
The four-guard lineup Bennett deployed in attempt to match the Panthers’ scoring prowess meant young Virginia guards like freshman Kyle Guy were tasked with marking the likes of 6-foot-9 senior Michael Young (19 points, six rebounds) and 6-7 senior Jamel Artis (24 and seven), the ACC’s top two scorers after Wednesday. That’s a newer wrinkle the Cavaliers just aren’t used to yet, and Pittsburgh took advantage of the size mismatch to both shoot over the pack-line defense and make it hard for Virginia to box out.
“We just started doing the four-guard lineup,” senior point guard London Perrantes said. “So as much as we try and practice it, you don’t really practice until you get into a game and you’re playing against another big who’s played the five-man position or the four-man position their whole life. So I mean, it’s tough.”
But guard Devon Hall noted that offense shouldn’t dictate defense, especially at Virginia, where it’s such a key part of team identity. The Cavaliers have only gone to the small-ball lineup in one conference game so far, but their defensive issues are varied.
Through three ACC contests, Virginia ranks 11th of 14 in the league in rebounding margin and 13th in three-point percentage defense.
“We should be able to get back and get defense,” said Hall, who is tied with Perrantes as Virginia’s leading scorer in ACC play. “I think that we need to get back, get back to our way of actually getting stops and getting back to what we were doing — taking pride in getting stops.”
How the team can go about executing a defensive reset was beyond Perrantes on Wednesday night, saying Virginia simply needed to “go back to the drawing board, keep working hard in practice,” as did many of his teammates.
But Bennett injected a small dose of realism when asked how different it was to guard Pittsburgh this year under their new Coach Kevin Stallings.
“We’re different defensively, too,” Bennett said immediately, “Let me start with that.”