How The Gators Solved Their Defensive Problems

“If they can hit their shots, they can beat anybody in the country.”

This is a phrase Florida has heard all season, a reputation earned after catching fire at the PK80 Tournament in Portland where they emblazoned the nets from behind the arc, and a phrase that they will continue to hear through March as the SEC Tournament concludes and the NCAA Tournament brackets are released.

But is it true?

The statement is predicated on the belief that Florida is a run and gun team that trades baskets with their opposition and just hopes they can either hit a higher percentage of their looks than their opponent or end up with the final shot at the end of barnburner. Though the statement doesn’t actually address Florida’s defense the implications are there that it is lackluster, suggesting that if their shots aren’t falling there isn’t a way the fast and loose Gators can win a game.

The statement also shows how hard it is to shake a reputation once you’ve been given it.

And really, it may have been true back in the beginning of the season when Florida was beating Gonzaga and losing to Florida State but something everyone who is a fan or that covers college basketball needs to remember is that a team in March is not the same team that it was in late November and early December and in reality Florida has been crawling up the defensive ranks and has silently become one of the best defensive teams in the country. Currently 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency they are ahead of “name brand” defensive juggernauts like South Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova, Purdue, and West Virginia, teams that are known every year as some of the nation’s best on their end of the floor, a reputation that has stuck to them just like Florida’s improper reputation of a poor defensive team. The Gators haven’t allowed 70 points in a game since January despite playing the gauntlet of an SEC schedule, and easily achieved the 2nd best defensive rating in the league.

Now, believe me, I recognize that this is a rather recent development. Florida had dipped as low as 59th in defensive efficiency at one point in the year and was really struggling to keep the ball out of the hoop (though, I should add, if 59th is the low point of your season defensively perhaps the Gators truly weren’t ever as bad as people thought). Coach Mike White preached over and over again how the team needed to improve in this area and though it seemed for weeks like the message was falling on deaf ears the team finally started to see the fruits of their labor in late January and early February and the team has been improving ever since leading them to achieve their current top-20 defensive rank.

What were the problems with Florida’s defense early in the year and how were they able to solve them? Let’s take a look.

Problem: Defending the 3-Point line
Solution: Limiting their opponent’s attempts

Let’s level with each other here, defending the long ball still isn’t Florida’s best attribute. They still are allowing a high percentage from behind the arc (35.5%, 205th in the country) but they aren’t allowing teams to beat them from there by focusing more on preventing attempts than stressing out about how to lower opponent’s efficiency by a percentage point or two. How are they doing this? Firstly, they have stopped over helping on dribble penetration, a problem they had earlier in the season. A month ago when a player got to middle of the floor with the dribble multiple Gators would collapse towards their hoop, often leaving open shooters and allowing them to take target practice. Communication on who is in position to be the help side defender has prevented too many players from diving inside to help, and that has limited their opposition’s 3-point attempts.

Problem: Defending pick and rolls
Solution: Taking away the most desirable outcomes

Pick and rolls have become the most recognizable play in basketball, but the set that so many teams rely on has a dirty little secret. Once a play ran with the primary focus of hitting the screen setter with a pass for a layup, the pick and roll has evolved to be a set designed to suck in the defense concerned with the possibility of the pass to the roll man and hit the open player on the perimeter to either knock down a jump shot or attack a closeout. The Gators have stopped taking the bait and haven’t over helped, instead chasing the ball handler into the mid-range area of the floor without much help off the ball. This leaves the ball handler with a open window but in the mid-range area of the floor, an area undesirable for most guards not used to taking the shot synonymous with 80’s basketball. They can take an extra step towards to hoop to put up a floater but they’ve been met with the elite shot blocking of Kevarrius Hayes who is one of the best rim protectors in the nation sitting at 37th in the country in block rate. That isn’t appealing for ball handlers, but with no open shooters due to the Gators not over helping the wild mid range shot has been their only option. With screen and rolls so popular in today’s game, Florida’s development in guarding them has been a huge step in their defensive success. 13.8% of the opposition’s shots have come from a pick and roll ball handler which is a lot more than the national average, showing how much the Gators have forced opponents into what they want them to do, a mark of a great defensive team.

Problem: Transition defense
Solution: Improved communication and, well, scoring

For a team that wanted to play fast the Gators really struggled to defend in transition to start the year dipping as low as 248th in the country in shooting percentage allowed on the break. Florida took a lot of threes on offense which resulted in a lot of long rebounds and opportunities for the other teams to run out. Unable to match up and protect the hoop the Gators gave up frustrating layup after frustrating layup. Though transition defense wouldn’t be the first thing you thought about when pondering the Gators’ defensive issue it arguably was their biggest problem, but luckily it has become their biggest turnaround. Now 154th in shooting percentage allowed in transition the Gators have gotten a lot better, though clearly not elite, in this area and it has been good enough to no longer be a major issue. Talking has been noticeable better as the Gators get back on the run as halfhearted pointing to which opponents they might pick up has been replaced with exclamations of “I’ve got ball!” “Weak side!” and “Trailer!” Talking on defense is huge in every area but it’s of increased importance in transition where a split second of indecision can allow a layup or wide open three. The other way Florida has improved it’s transition defense? Scoring more efficiently. When Florida was relying so heavily on the three it meant a lot of misses as they valued 37% 3-point shots over 45% twos. Those misses meant a lot more run outs for the other team. Now that they are getting more twos it means the ball goes through the hoop more often and the Gators can set their defense.

Problem: Defending post-ups
Solution: Not fearing them

A lack of size in the frontcourt has been frightening for a lot of fans but is it really as scary as it looks? The Gators used to send expedient double teams whenever the opposition got the ball into the post, fearfully preventing a one-on-one post up against a player like Egor Koulechov or Keith Stone as if their lives depended on it. This lead to the Gators constantly running out of position and scrambling to recover, often leading to a player cutting for an easy layup or a shooter being left wide open.

But then, an epiphany.

How bad are post ups, really?

With many of the country’s elite post players barely hovering around 50% from the field, the Gators decided their were bigger threats to be concerned with defensively and started allowing the opposition to go one-on-one down low, trusting their posts to get a stop.

And it’s worked.

Florida has actually become a better defending team in the post, up to the 66th percentile nationally putting them above average. Playing single man coverage down low has also dared the opposition to post up more than they normally would, forcing them to abandon their normal offense to do something they feel they should when they see a size mismatch. The truth is, the numbers suggest Florida can guard the post and if a team wants to isolate Florida down low it’s smarter for the Gators to let a team try to beat them on post up twos than it is to allow elite guards to do damage. Maybe Florida’s size problems aren’t all they’ve been made out to be. On that note…

Problem: Finishing defensive possessions with a rebound
Solution: Staying at home defensively

When Florida struggled to defensively rebound the basketball the general reasoning was that they were undersized and were therefore going to give up rebounds to bigger, longer, and stronger opponents. Is that true? Only partially. In reality, a lot of the offensive rebounds given up were due to the high pressure defense Florida played that brought all five players further out and constantly playing passing lanes and switching. This meant a lot of running around, and when a shot went up it meant that Florida was out of position and unable to box out. That lead to easy offensive rebounds for opponents and easy put backs, backbreaking points that deflated the Gators. They have really dialed back the defensive pressure as of late which has allowed defenders to stay stuck to their man so when a shot goes up they are in position to box out and secure the ball. The Gators have improved their defensive rebound rate by nearly 6% the last month and haven’t allowed anywhere near the amount of easy put back points teams were getting earlier in the year against them, another big step in their defensive evolution.

Common Trends

If you’ve noticed, a lot of the defensive improvements have centered around the Gators running around less and not over helping. When players start trying to defend the entire court a team’s defense distorts and wide open threes and offensive rebounds were the penalties the Gators played for this out of control style. Now that they are communicating and playing under control their defense has climbed to 19th in the country, something they should be extremely proud of.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I really respect Mike White for making this team better defensively. What I appreciate is not only the quality of the defense achieved but the way that he has changed philosophies from the start of the year until now, figuring out what works for this group instead of just doing what he is used to doing or doing what was successful for the team last year. I really value a coach that has the intelligence and mindset to not be stuck in his ways but figure out how a team can adapt, and Mike White turning this group into an elite defensive squad shows just that.

Does Defense Win Championships?

If you look at the last 8 National Championship winners, then yes. Here is where the last 8 winners finished in adjusted defensive efficiency, the category the Gators currently sit in 19th:

’10 Duke: 5th
’11 Connecticut: 15th
’12 Kentucky: 7th
’13 Louisville: 1st
’14 Connecticut: 10th
’15 Duke: 11th
’16 Villanova: 5th
’17 North Carolina: 11th

Recent history has shown that you have to be good defensively if you want to win, and the Gators’ improvement in this area shows a team trending in the right direction for NCAA Tournament success.

“If they can hit their shots, they can beat anybody in the country.”

Well, technically, so can anyone.

But with their defense, Florida can beat anyone in the country too.

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Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.