From the opening tip against Florida Gulf Coast until the final buzzer of the Elite Eight, there was a defining trait about last year’s Gators. They were going to defend, and they were going to defend you hard. 94 feet, no matter the score, no matter the time on the clock, life was going to be difficult for opposing offenses. The way the coaching staff was able to get defensive buy-in from the players was extremely apparent when celebrations would echo from the bench when the players on the floor got a key block or forced a shot clock violation. Kasey Hill picking off a pass for a layup or Kevarrius Hayes diving on the floor for a loose ball was applauded just as much, if not more, then a big three or a thunderous dunk on offence. Coach White has been very clear in his expectations defensively, and spoke on how he wants his team to guard at SEC Media Day. “We obviously don’t want to give up any catch and shoot threes, as many coaches preach, and layups and dunks and you try not to foul and moving the ball and you always see ball and man.” He punctuated his point with “We don’t overcomplicate it, but our guys are good at it.”
What made last year’s team so good defensively, and how can this year’s squad replicate that success? Let’s take a dive into the numbers.
Never one to stick to one defensive scheme, Coach White threw the full arsenal of defensive looks at opponents last season. The Gators were primarily a man-to-man defensive team, playing that style of defense 76% percent of the time. One of the added wrinkles to the man defense was the switching of assignments on screens. By making tactical switches when on-ball screens came, the Gators were able to cut off dribble penetration and keep opponents out of the paint. This was made easier with athletic, switchable pieces like Devin Robinson and Justin Leon on the floor, so time will tell whether this tactic will still be in place this season when Florida is forced to roll out smaller, more guard oriented lineups.
To really change up the pace of the game, the Gators tastefully instituted zone defenses that were very effective in stretches. The most effective zone they utilized, in my opinion, was the 1-3-1. In the 1-3-1, you really clog up driving lanes and force the ball to be slowly and methodically moved around the perimeter. This gives many opportunities for defenders off the ball to shoot passing lanes and come up with deflections and steals, and with the top man being so high in the defensive formation to begin with, he is in perfect position to catch outlet passes for breakaway dunks. Chris Chiozza played the baseline “runner” position in this set, and used his speed and anticipation to cover the corners perfectly. I don’t believe the Gators will use this early in the season due to the absence of John Egbunu, as well as to not give conference opponents any scouting material, but I think later in league play and the tournament this defense could be a frustrating tool that is extremely effective.
The Gators gave up 66.5 points per game last year, good for 47th in the country. Considering the difficult schedule they played, as well as the high octane pace they played in stretches, this is a number I’m sure the coaching staff is happy about. Further impressive stats are the shooting percentages they allowed. On 2-point field goal attempts, opponents shot 45.7 percent, which is a whopping 4.4% lower then the national average. Not allowing easy buckets at the rim is paramount to stout defense, and the shot blocking presence of John Egbunu was on full display. In his absence, the Gators will have to defend the paint in different ways such as doubling down on post players, or having a help side defender try to slide in and take charges instead of trying to elevate to block shots.
Though the paint defense was imposing, the way the Gators defended the 3-point line was even more impressive as opponents only shot 30.5% from beyond the arc. That number is good for 10th in the country and 4.5% lower then national average. With the 3-point shot being more important then ever, the ability to limit the efficiency of those shots is a big part of good defense. Open 3-pointers usually come when the defense breaks down and the ball gets kicked out, so the low percentage shot by opponents is a strong indicator of that the Gators were successful on their own end.
When a primary defender gets beat, nothing feels better then having a teammate come over from the weak side to swat away a layup attempt. The Gators were 30th in the country in blocked shots with 4.8 per game, and altered many more with their length. 12.1% of opponent’s 2-point field goal attempts were blocked, which is intimidating for anyone gliding towards the hoop hoping for easy points. Near the basket wasn’t the only place the Gators showed aggressiveness, as they used superior team speed and active hands to get plenty of steals and easy transition layups. 7.5 Steals per game for the Gators were enough to keep opponents on their toes in both man defense and zone defense looks. Another interesting statistic is steal percentage, which shows that the Gators stole the ball from the other team a staggering 10.6% of the time. If that doesn’t give coaches headaches, I don’t know what does.
The one area where the Gators underachieved was on the defensive glass where they weren’t always able to end defensive possessions with a rebound. The Gators allowed offensive rebounds on 29.5% of shots, which is a number you’d certainly like to see go down. One of the reasons they struggled in this category was the pressure they applied off of the ball. By playing tight and denying passes, when shots went up the defenders weren’t in the same defensive rebounding positioning they would have been if they were sagging off. Though allowing second chance opportunities can be frustrating, it may be a necessary evil of the pressure that allowed the Gators so many steals and deflections. The Gators will be smaller this season, especially while Egbunu is out, so this is definitely an aspect to watch when the ball gets tipped in November.
Coach White has been clear that defense is a priority in Gainesville, and the team proved how successful they can be when they when they execute on their own end. With plenty of new faces in the roster this year, watch to see how this team guards and makes the O’Dome a tough place to play.