Defense Will Win the 2019 National Championship, and That's Perfectly Fine

Two incredible team defensive efforts will take center stage during the national championship on Monday. Zion Williamson won't be catching lobs, but Texas Tech and Virginia are primed for an epic matchup nonetheless.
Publish date:

MINNEAPOLIS — Before Virginia and Texas Tech play for the national title Monday night, we bring you this important programming note: This will almost certainly be a slow, low-scoring game. This does not mean the game will suck, or that the Cavaliers and Red Raiders are setting basketball back 50 years, or that they are somehow unworthy of playing for the title. It means their style lends itself to play slow, low-scoring games.

These teams are here largely because they play extraordinary half-court defense. This is not a worse way to play than North Carolina’s fast-paced style. It’s just different. The teams should not be vilified for it any more than a team should be vilified for winning the World Series with great pitching.

One of the fun parts about sports is—or should be—that people try to win with different styles. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are not just great; they are great in different ways. Basketball is most interesting when there is a contrast in styles. Virginia climbed to the top of the ACC by countering Duke and UNC, not by copying them.

“People are always looking for ways… how can we close the gap against teams that are so talented?” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Defense can be a great equalizer. You play all different kinds of systems. That’s the beauty of the game. People put all different twists on it.”

The contrast in the title game will be subtle, but it’s there. These are great defensive teams, but they are not great in the same way. If you understand basketball—not on the level of a coach, but just as a longtime fan of the game—you will probably appreciate it.

Texas Tech plays an active, swarming, relentless half-court scheme, switching on almost every screen. It will be interesting to see how Virginia handles this. Duke switched on almost every screen against Virginia this year, and the Blue Devils beat the Cavaliers twice.

The Red Raiders force players to drive to the baseline, and they always seem like they should be vulnerable to open 3s, but they are so quick and smart that they close out on shooters faster than anybody realizes. Michigan State, Gonzaga and Michigan shot a combined 15 for 69 from three-point range against Texas Tech. That was not just a string of poor shooting nights. It’s what Texas Tech does to people.

Virginia, meanwhile, has mastered basketball’s version of gap discipline in football. The Cavaliers rarely switch, but they have a habit of slowing the opponent’s offense to a crawl. Bennett’s pack-line defense is pretty straightforward, though like any scheme there are adjustments from game to game and within a game. Somebody pressures the ball-handler. Everybody else stays back inside an imaginary 16-foot arc until an opposing player gets the ball outside of it.

Is that as visually thrilling as watching Zion Williamson pull an alley-oop pass out of the rafters and dunk it? No. But it should appeal to more sophisticated basketball palates.

And offensively, Texas Tech runs an old-school motion offense, with everybody screening for everybody. This will test Virginia’s defensive discipline. And we will see if Virginia’s offensive discipline can counter Texas Tech’s aggressiveness.

This game will not be an NBA scout’s dream, and it may not bring joy to the casual fan. But it should feature high-level basketball, if not high-level shot-making.

The complaints about these teams are as old as Tony Bennett’s father Dick.. Nineteen years ago, I walked down a hallway alongside Dick as he threw up his hands in exasperation and asked “What’s wrong with defense?” He had just led Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four, only to hear, when he got there, that the greatest professional achievement of his lifetime was not fun enough

“When I was at Wisconsin with Dick, wooooo! We took a lot of abuse,” said Virginia assistant Brad Soderberg, who worked under Dick and eventually succeeded him. “But we felt that was our only chance. Before Dick arrived at Wisconsin the Badgers had been to one NCAA tournament in a half-century. Think about that.”

How slow did those Wisconsin teams play? Against Michigan State in the national semifinal, Dick told all five of his players not to go for offensive rebounds. He wanted all five back to stop MSU’s transition game.

When one Badger grabbed an offensive rebound anyway, Bennett pulled him.

Bennett found players to fit his system, and he slayed a few more talented teams as he built the program.

Soderberg said the criticism bothered Dick: “It did. I know it did. I saw it firsthand.” Tony seems less bothered by it. And his offense this year is much more efficient and impressive than his earlier Virginia teams.

The only totally safe prediction about this game is that viewers will whine about it. It may not seem pretty to you. But sometimes basketball excellence is not about the highlights you create. It’s about the highlights you take away.