Defense the constant for No 3 Virginia, No. 9 Louisville
Virginia coach Tony Bennett gushed this week when talking about No. 9 Louisville and its defense, saying the Cardinals are ''as good of a defensive team as I've seen in quite a while.''
It turns out the No. 3 Cavaliers have something to do with that.
Louisville's Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was unimpressed earlier this season with how his team played help defense, so he went to the videotape - of how Virginia players help each other on defense.
''About two months ago I showed our team that we were not helping right defensively. We were playing on the ball, we were on what I call our strong-side defense, playing very well. We didn't play weak-side defense,'' Pitino said this week. ''I showed them clips of Virginia and the way they play the ball. Five guys play the ball.''
The results have been impressive.
While the Cavaliers and No. 1 Kentucky, the Cardinals' in-state rival, have taken turns leading the country in scoring defense all season, Pitino's team is 20th.
Virginia is leading the way, allowing 50.8 points per game; the Cardinals give up 58.8 points.
''They're exceptional defensively,'' Bennett said. ''Their scheme is unique. They mix it up and it's impressive. They win with their defense a lot and they certainly have some playmakers that do things offensively. They challenge you to take care of the ball when they're pressing and then when they're not, going against their halfcourt man-to-man, zone, matchup.''
The Cardinals sometimes press, and while Virginia had great success when it faced the 94 feet of pressure No. 18 VCU employs earlier in the year, Louisville is more athletic.
''It's as good of a defensive team as I've seen in quite a while,'' Bennett said.
The Cavaliers (20-1, 8-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will finish a stretch of three games against ranked teams with Hall of Fame coaches - Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina's Roy Williams and Pitino - in Saturday night's meeting at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena.
Not that Bennett hasn't impressed in his own right.
Pitino said his team (19-3, 7-2) will be facing ''one of the bright young coaches in the game.''
Said the Cardinals coach: ''He's got staying power because his teams execute so well.''
Louisville has won four in a row, including a victory against No. 12 North Carolina in which it erased an 18-point deficit in the last 18 minutes of regulation, then won easily, 78-68 in overtime.
Virginia will be looking for its second straight victory. The Cavaliers won at North Carolina on Monday night, their first victory on the road against a ranked Tar Heels team since 1981. It came two days after Duke ended Virginia's 21-game home winning streak with a come-from-behind, 69-63 victory.
As Bennett noted, the Cardinals present defensive challenges, primarily with a backcourt duo of Terry Rozier (18.5 ppg) and Chris Jones (13.7 ppg). Louisville also has a dangerous big man in Montrezl Harrell (15.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg).
Bennett is most familiar with Harrell, having coached him last summer on Team USA in the FIBA Under 19 World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic. The Virginia coach envisions a compelling matchup with Harrell and the Cavaliers' front line trio of 7-foot Mike Tobey and 6-8 forward Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill.
''He is a warrior between the lines,'' Bennett said of Harrell. ''He's motivated by that. The bigger the game, the bigger the setting, he seems to thrive on that, so that's what impresses me about him.''
AP sports writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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