PITTSBURGH — After dropping the first ACC game of the 2016-17 slate in Saturday’s 78-77 overtime loss to Notre Dame, things won’t get any easier for the Pitt Panthers, as No. 11 Virginia comes to town with the top-ranked defense in the nation that will have a chip on its shoulder after the Cavaliers lost their ACC opener to Florida State, 60-58, at home Saturday.
The Cavaliers have played a stifling brand of defense under head coach Tony Bennett for several years now and this year’s version is one of the best. The Cavaliers are ranked first in scoring defense, second in adjusted defense by KenPom.com and second in field goal percentage against.
It all adds up to one of the toughest test in college basketball, and if the Panthers want to avoid falling to 0-2, they’re going to have to find a way to solve it.
“They tend to play one way with very few adjustments and they become terrific each year, it seems, at that one way,” Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings said. “It’s a commitment to a scheme and to a philosophy. Obviously, terrific teaching of that scheme and philosophy. … I think a lot of people try to play defense that way, but nobody quite seems to be able to coach it and teach it and almost demand it the way that Tony seems to on a very consistent basis.”
The standard thinking is that in order to beat Virginia, you have to find someone that can shoot over their complex back-line defense.
“One of the things you have to do to beat Virginia is you have to make some shots,” Stallings said. “One of the things that I marvel at is their ability to take away the 3-point line while also taking away penetration and they double team the post. So, the standard reasoning would be, if you get it out of the post and move it, you’ll end up with a good shot, but you don’t against them because they don’t let you get it out of the post easily.”
With Pitt’s starting lineup featuring five players 6-foot-9 or shorter, engaging Virginia’s defense in interior play seems nearly suicidal. Instead, look for the Panthers to spread the floor and try to make Virginia’s forwards defend shots on the perimeter.
Pitt has a couple of players capable of making teams pay for that mismatch, particularly power forward Michael Young, who has been working hard to develop that part of his game. Young leads the team with a 45.5 percent success rate from 3-point range and with 20 3-pointers made, he’s the team’s third-most prolific scorer from long range, behind point guard Jamel Artis and wing Cameron Johnson.
“[Young has] always been a capable 3-point shooter, just now, in this offense, he has more of an opportunity to let it go,” Johnson said. “He’s definitely worked on it and developed it, but he’s been doing that all along, so I’m not surprised by it.”
Though Young has the skills and size to be a matchup problem the Panthers can exploit, they aren’t taking any avenue of success for granted against the Cavaliers.
“They’re very disciplined,” Johnson said. “They really just look to cut off every opportunity possible. They don’t have any defensive lapses, really ever. They’re very well coached. They take a lot of pride in defending and it’s just there. They really get after you.”
NOT JUST DEFENSE
While Virginia’s defense is notoriously good, the Cavaliers have been filling the net this season, as well. They’re ranked 16th in adjusted offense by KenPom.com and are using a tough-to-stop total team approach that doesn’t have a single player average double-digit points, but nine players average between 4.9 and 9.9 points per game.
On any given night, it could be a different weapon, from sure handed senior guard London Perrantes to sophomore big man Jack Salt, who at 6-foot-11, will have a height advantage over all of Pitt’s roster on the inside. The dynamic offense is aided by the defense and the two play in lockstep for the most part.
“They want to get you into their grinder,” Stallings said. “They want to get you into their style of play, and they’re good at it.”
Stallings had said going into the Notre Dame game that he thought his team would respond well to the battle level of ACC play because of its experience and what he saw when the team beat Maryland on the road earlier this season. He thought that he effort and intensity were there for his team in the conference, especially on defense, where they held Notre Dame to 68 points in regulation.
With a team as solid as the Cavaliers coming to town, particularly with their noteworthy defense, Johnson said there is also a heightened level of intensity to the team’s preparations, particularly when it comes to solving that Virginia defense.
“Obviously, we focus on us first and doing what we have to do, but they is the fact that they are an elite defensive team and we have to perform at our best on offense,” Johnson said.
“You notice a difference in the level of engagement and the energy level those things,” Stallings added. “An increased awareness and sensitivity to what we’re telling them. I think naturally, the intensity ratchets up for everyone not just us when conference play begins. … While there’s an increased level of intensity, it’s still about your habits.”
One of the habits that has come to the forefront recently is the Panthers’ switch
“I think it’s just communication. There’s just different times when we don’t get a rotation right or we don’t get a switch perfect and it leads to a basket. We can defend for 25 seconds and then just one little mistake can cause a basket. It just comes down to focus at the end of the possession.”