ORLANDO, Fla. – Both Virginia and UNC Wilmington turn to defense to jumpstart their fortunes on the basketball court. How they go about it couldn’t be more different, however, and whoever gets the upper hand with it Thursday could decide the NCAA Tournament clash between the two.
The Seahawks pressure the ball in their halfcourt defense and through a variety of fullcourt presses. They get in the passing lanes, disrupt timing, and try to turn that into offensive opportunities. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, keep pressure on the ball but play a layered pack of defenders behind it. They stay in the gaps, make it hard to get easy shots, and then seal off the rebounding opportunities.
Clashing styles indeed. But the root desire is the same: make the other team uncomfortable.
“They do a good job,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They have a few different kinds of presses. They can run and jump. They can make it hard to get it inbounds. They can trap you and just try to disrupt you with their quickness. So they do a good job of that, and they turn that into offense. Then in the half-court, they’re real pesky. They can get in passing lanes. They can switch on ball, off ball screens, and they just make you be real sure with the ball and handle it and work to get good shots. And, again, they use their speed and their quickness to be disruptive.”
“Well, I don’t know that – and here’s the weird thing, all the tape that I’ve watched on those guys, I don’t know that you can speed them up, but that being said, we’re going to try to speed them up,” UNCW coach Kevin Keatts said. “I think we’ve got to do a good job of trying to get out and get some fastbreak points. I think you have to have a lot of player and ball movement. I think their defense is best when you’re just standing around a lot. I do think that we’ve got to try to get in and press. What’s tough about pressing those guys is that, if you don’t score, you can’t press. That’s the tough thing about it. This is probably the best defense that we’re going to face since I’ve been at UNCW.”
Executing those individual defensive styles could be tricky at the Amway Center. Both teams offer things offensively that could challenge their opponent.
Wilmington must deal with Virginia’s versatile group of guards if it is going to speed up the game and create turnovers with fullcourt pressure. While many teams use one guard to initiate the offense or to bring the ball up against certain presses, UVA can – and does – take a different approach at times.
Yes, senior London Perrantes will be in that spot a lot and his decision-making has often dissected teams’ plans to press. When teams go to fullcourt man-to-man pressure, which UNCW will do at times, the Hoos can choose other paths up the floor, though. Devon Hall and Ty Jerome have spent a lot of time bringing the ball up the floor this season for example, meaning the Seahawks just can’t put their best defender on the ball and nag the dribbler. Those three players along with Darius Thompson and Kyle Guy have at least a little point guard experience from their high school days.
In the halfcourt setting, Virginia will set a series of screens on nearly every possession as well. So whether the Seahawks decide to switch some of those or not, they’ll have to maintain intensity and focus for long stretches potentially.
On the flipside, UNCW will challenge UVA’s defense it two ways. First, Keatts’ club loves to get out in transition and find quick shots, particularly on spot-up 3-pointers. While the Hoos usually handle defensive balance responsibilities well, they’ll need to be alert to players running to 3-point spots and not just filling lanes toward the basket.
Second, Wilmington sets tons of on-ball screens. That’s not surprising, of course, with the way many teams are spacing the floor to drive and kick for shots now. It is a long-time strategy against the Pack-Line defense anyway because it pulls one help defender away from the paint area since UVA hedges into the path of the dribbler. The catch with the Seahawks is that they have multiple 3-point shooters around the screen-and-roll action and the nation’s top finisher to boot.
Forward Devontae Cacok, a 6’7” and 240-pound sophomore, leads the nation in field goal percentage at 79.9% through 34 games. He gets most of his shots right at the rim after rolling hard out of a screen or by crashing the glass when a shooter lets a shot fly.
“Yeah, we’ll need to be sharp on him,” Bennett said. “Of course, there’s guys – Jack [Salt] and Mamadi [Diakite] and Jarred [Reuter] and hopefully Isaiah [Wilkins] handling that. But he is quick. He’s strong. He’s explosive. So they’ll all be getting chances with him. He does a real good job on the ball screens and rolling and finding the ball after that, and they find him.”
“I can pick a lot of guys off our team, but if you look at probably the most improved guy, I think in the country, it would be Devontae Cacok,” Keatts said. “He allows our offense to flow, probably one of the best finishers I’ve ever had as a coach. I like to compare him to Montrezl Harrell, who we had at Louisville. Also, Kenneth Faried. He’s really good around the basket. He knows how to finish. He plays with a motor, and he runs the floor well, and a tremendous offensive player.”
C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemmings, Ambrose Mosley, and Denzel Ingram are all 3-point threats with at least 42 made triples from each. Bryce shot 37.3% from behind the line in CAA play, while the other three have posted 35.8% for the season Ambroe leads the way at 40.5% shooting from downtown.
Perhaps the most relevant piece of the puzzle, however, is UNC Wilmington’s ability to make tough shots. In halfcourt catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy Sports statistics, the Seahawks make 37.2% of their shots while guarded for 1.101 points per possession. That’s an ‘excellent’ rating from Synergy and it goes up when factoring in 3-pointers (54.9% adjusted field goal percentage).
“They shoot a lot of shots. They get them up very quickly, so of course they’re going to make some,” Perrantes said. “We’re going to have to make them hit contested shots all game. If they can do that, then they deserve to win. We just can’t give up any open looks, any easy looks. I think we’ll be all right.”