Akil Mitchell (right) and Justin Anderson are among Virginia's best defenders. (Geoff Burke -- USA Today Sports / March 3, 2014)
Traditionalists cling to scoring defense and opponents’ field goal percentage. Progressives and Ken Pomeroy groupies, often one in the same, embrace defensive efficiency and opponents’ effective field goal percentage.
No matter your preference, Virginia ranks among college basketball’s premier defensive teams this season. Given coach Tony Bennett’s history and philosophy, man-bites-dog news this is not, but even by Bennett’s standards, these Cavaliers are extraordinary.
Per the NCAA, they lead the nation in scoring defense (54.8 points per game) and rank eighth in field goal percentage defense (38.1). Per Pomeroy, they are third in defensive efficiency, fifth in opponents’ offensive rebounds, eighth in 2-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense, calculations that remove tempo from the equation.
And here’s another metric that underlines just how miserable Virginia makes opposing offenses: defending top scorers.
Nothing disrupts a team more than having its best player/go-to guy neutered, and the Cavaliers do it ruthlessly.
Consider: No ACC player who leads his team in scoring has shot 50 percent or better against Virginia this season. Only one of those players, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels, has reached or surpassed his average point total.
North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren is on pace to join Clemson’s Horace Grant (1987) and Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan (’97) as the only players to lead the ACC in scoring and field goal percentage. But he had a season-low four points on 1-of-9 shooting against the Cavaliers.
You could dimiss Warren’s rough outing as a fluke, if not for the overwhelming evidence elsewhere.
Duke freshman Jabari Parker is the ACC’s No. 2 scorer at 18.8 and top rebounder at 8.9. He had eight points and three boards versus Virginia and missed 8-of-11 shots.
North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige shot 4-for-14 and scored nine points, barely half his average, in a setback at Virginia. The Tar Heels haven't lost since.
The list goes on, and the cumulative numbers are staggering. ACC leading scorers are averaging 9.0 points and shooting 27.7 percent against the Cavaliers.
The lone exception was McDaniels, a 17.1 points-per-game scorer. He had 24 versus Virginia, making 6-of-13 field goals and 11-of-13 free throws.
Now you could argue that including Georgia Tech’s Trae Golden, who went scoreless in a loss to Virginia, is unfair because he was returning from a groin injury and limited to 18 minutes. But Marcus Georges-Hunt, the Yellow Jackets’ No. 2 scorer, had only seven points on 3-of-9 shooting in that game.
The variety of players that Virginia has stifled, from the 6-foot-8, 235-pound Parker to the 6-1, 175-pound Paige, demonstrates how versatile and balanced Virginia is defensively.
Sixth man Justin Anderson is a dynamic shot blocker whose wing span makes him a blanketing perimeter defender as well. Also on the outside, Malcolm Brogdon is unusually strong and Joe Harris very underrated at moving his feet.
Freshman point guard London Perrantes has taken to Bennett’s pack-line system of crowding the paint better than most rookies, while senior forward Akil Mitchell has emerged as the team’s best defender, equally adept at double-teaming the low post and hedging on perimeter ball screens.
Indeed, in material emailed to All-ACC voters Monday, Virginia nominated Mitchell as defensive player of the year. He’ll get my vote.
As good as they are individually on defense, the Cavaliers (25-5, 16-1) are better collectively. They know instinctively how one another will react and how best to help the cause.
Another critical element: Virginia does not foul excessively. The ratio of attempted free throws to attempted field goals for Cavaliers’ opponents is 33rd best nationally, according to Pomeroy.