Texas Tech will face Virginia for the men’s national basketball championship Monday at U.S. Bank Stadium. America’s wrestling coaches can’t wait.
The over-under is subterranean, and so might be the ratings. If you like 360-degree dunks, this matchup is sexy as a bruised elbow.
Texas Tech ranks first in the KenPom defensive efficiency ratings; Virginia is No. 5.
Tech has throttled, in succession, the offenses of Michigan’s John Beilein, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Virginia has barely survived and advanced, using a blend of clutch play and luck made relevant by a defense that keeps the Cavaliers in games even when their offense lags.
The programs have little in common other than defensive systems rooted in the game’s patriarchy and coaches who would rather give up a toe than a layup.
Virginia relies on the “Pack Line” defense popularized by former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett — father of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. The system relies on help defense that cuts off dribble penetration, denial of entry passes to the post and aggressive closeouts on key shooters.
Tony watched his father turn Wisconsin from a Big Ten also-ran to an NCAA tournament regular.
“To have that experience, to know that defense can be an equalizer and use that is important,” he said.
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard worked under Bobby Knight and emphasizes some of Knight’s man-to-man principles, but he and assistant coach Mark Adams have engineered a unique system that makes Tech’s players look like a bunch of ball-hawking defensive backs.
Adams went 554-244 over 23 seasons at smaller schools, winning the NJCAA title in 2010 while being named the national coach of the year. He demands maximum effort and awareness on every defensive possession, and bribes players with candy to get them to watch extra video in his office.
“Coach Adams is the secret sauce,” Tech freshman Kyler Edwards said.
“He’s my mentor,” Beard said.
Adams says he’s borrowed philosophies and schemes from Knight, Eddie Sutton, former Texas Tech coach Gerald Myers and ... Dick Bennett.
The younger Bennett wants his defense to coax the ball toward the middle of the court, where all five defenders can watch the ball and react. Tech wants to push the ball to the sideline and baseline, using the boundary as an extra defender, making traps and double-teams that much more effective.
Tech’s defense is more aggressive, with players constantly poking and slapping at the ball, deflecting passes and blindsiding shooters and ballhandlers. Virginia prefers to present a wall of defenders.
But when it comes to basketball defense, it’s not about “how.” It’s about “how well,” and “how often.” Every coach in the country preaches defense and has access to Dick Bennett’s teachings and Beard’s game videos. Defense is in the details.
Guard Matt Mooney said Tech coaches taught him how to “pulse” his feet, to keep them moving even when standing still, making him quicker to react. He remembers getting yelled at any time he let his hands drop in practice. Tech features tall guards and active big men, meaning almost anyone can guard almost anyone, even if forced to switch assignments.
Virginia’s players try to stay connected enough to their men that they can fight through screens, avoiding bad matchups and keeping pressure on the ball.
“It’s about awareness,” Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite said. “You have to understand where the ball is, where your man is and what your opponent is trying to do.”
Neither system would stop a good AAU player if not for the connectivity of five players playing a game designed to reward offensive skill.
The greatest challenge for Beard and Bennett is recruiting talented offensive players who are willing to be hounded about their defense.
“Tony is hard to play for,” Virginia guard Ty Jerome said. “He tells us he’s hard to play for.”
“Take a vote in this room right now, probably none of them want to practice defense,” Adams said, standing in the Tech locker room. “But it’s who we are.”
Adams is the puppet master of this tournament. Texas Tech is playing historically great defense largely because of the son of a former Texas Gold Gloves champion who has his defense throwing hands.
“I fought in Golden Gloves, too,” Adams said. “I’ve got a little of that fighter in me. We talk about that. We feel like every time down the floor is a fight and we want to throw the first punch.”
Monday night, the NCAA should remember to bring a fight doctor, and an abacus.