There’s plenty of respect from both sides toward their Friday night Sweet 16 opponents.
“It’s going to have to be our best against their best. So the ability, I think, to be at your best – they’re terrific offensively. They’re so efficient, how they can score, how they can stretch you with their balance, with (Georges) Niang, everybody talks about that,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said.
“We’re going to have to be really good at what we do, and try not to yield and of course make them earn everything and be as efficient as we can offensively, and of course they’re going to try to do their thing.”
Their thing is pushing the pace. Iowa State (23-11) averages 71.7 possessions per game, more than 10 more than UVA (61.3), and had 69 or fewer possessions just 10 times in their 34 games this season.
Virginia’s thing is also pace, in the other direction. Just three times in the past five seasons, spanning 177 games, has UVA had more than 70 possessions in a game, and one of those, in January 2015 at Miami, was a double-overtime affair.
“Virginia wants to get into the half-court, get a lot of ball reversal, make you work on defense for 20, 25 seconds,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “You know, our biggest thing is offensively is making sure our spacing, making sure our shot selection is good. Our games, we’ve won a lot of big games when our possessions are in the 60s and high 60s.
“If you really chart our teams, we don’t want to play crazy fast, we want to run and make sure we get into spots, and then we want the ball moving, and when we have good ball reversal and good shot selection, then we’re very, very good.”
Iowa State was 7-3 in those games with possessions in the 50s and 60s. Virginia, for its part, has wins over fast-paced teams like Villanova, North Carolina and West Virginia.
So both teams can beat you their way, and beat you your way.
The key for Virginia will be what it can do to try to contain Niang (20.2 points per game, 54.6 percent field goal shooting, 39.0 percent three-point shooting), a difference-maker at the four spot.
“He’s a special player for sure,” UVA senior Malcolm Brogdon said. “He’s one of the great college players of this year, and he presents his own challenge for sure. (Clemson’s Jaron) Blossomgame is probably the closest thing we’ve played to them, but still, their games are very distinct. But it’s going to be a team effort and that is what our strength is, is team defense, is playing the Pack-Line as a team.”
Niang plays more in the post than the other dominant fours that the Cavs have faced this season, with more than 70 percent of his field-goal attempts coming from two-point range.
But his ability to score from behind the arc makes him dangerous on screens.
“Puts it on the floor. Terrific passer, driver. He’s so gifted offensively, and he’s good with his fakes. Real smart, real competitive. Good size, too,” Bennett said. “That obviously puts pressure on your defense, and those are challenges to us, so we’re going to have to be at our best with that.”
Virginia brings unique challenges with that Pack-Line defense.
“If you watch our games, we get a lot of easy buckets at the rim, and I think that’s what their Pack-Line is really trying to take away, so obviously we’re going to have to find some ways of moving them around to open up those easy lanes for us to get to the rim,” Niang said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to make some shots from the outside. So I think the biggest thing is trying to get them moving, get in uncomfortable positions on the defensive end so we can get easy lines to the basket.
UVA is more than its Pack-Line D, of course. The Cavs have the sixth-most efficient offense in the nation, according to KenPom.com, with the mover-blocker offense with constant movement.
The Pack-Line, you already knew about. The offense, most people outside the Embrace the Pace set don’t.
“I think the biggest thing is if you ever watch Virginia, they do a great job of getting the ball reversed and running their actions,” Niang said. “I think if you can deny passes and take away certain passes and make them have to go to counters for what their offense is, I think that’s going to help us get them sped up a little bit.
“Obviously they play a slow, grind-it-out type of style, so I think take away some of their options, whether it’s denying the pass out or not letting guys catch, I think that will be huge for us in trying to change the style or tempo.”
Except that you won’t change the tempo. Sorry, you just won’t.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on. We really try to impose our will on the other team and make them play the game that we want to play,” Virginia senior forward Anthony Gill said. “Defensively and offensively, our offense is designed to make the other team work on defense, and it’s just something that most teams can’t keep up with throughout the whole game, and that’s credit to Coach Bennett and the way he’s established his program and got us running the offense that we do.”
Prohm seems to realize that the key for his Cyclones isn’t as much about the pace as it is efficiency.
“Virginia is one team, Coach Bennett is kind of, this is how they play. Post trap, they’re coming hard. Hedging ball screen, they’re hedging hard. Going to be in gaps. Going to make it really tough, be physical,” Prohm said. “We’ve seen every different defense on Niang this year, so the biggest thing that you can focus on is is your spacing good, are we getting ball reversal, are we cutting hard, and is our shot selection good.
“When our team, because we have skill level and we have good shooters, when we’re spacing the floor and moving the basketball, we don’t really have to run so-called play A, B or C, we can just play basketball, and I really think these guys are more comfortable just playing basketball,” Prohm said.
Story by Chris Graham