The Florida Gators are on a roll. Billy Donovan's team last lost in Storrs, Conn., on Dec. 2, when a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater dropped the Gators to 6-2 overall. After an undefeated SEC season that ended with an 84-65 stomping of the Kentucky Wildcats and a victory over John Calipari's crew in the title game of the conference tournament, Florida grabbed the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida is a team with few weaknesses. Currently ranked as the No. 17 offense and No. 5 defense in the nation, per Kenpom, the Gators are good at just about everything you can be good at on a basketball court. But this all-around excellence is not something that can be taken for granted.
After winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, Florida went through a rough patch. In 2008 and 2009, the Gators missed the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, they returned to the tournament as a No. 10 seed, but lost in the first round.
Florida's troubles over this stretch can largely be attributed to poor defense. The offense over this time period wasn't much worse than it was when Donovan was cutting down nets with Joakim Noah and friends, but the defense was a different matter. In 2006 and 2007, Florida's defense ranked No. 6 and No. 17 in the nation according to Kenpom, respectively. From 2008 through 2012, Florida's defensive rankings were: 123, 113, 91, 41, and 90.
Florida's defensive renaissance
After the end of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Billy Donovan had a realization -- Florida needed to get better on defense. The improvement in the Gator defense the following year was detailed in this excellent article by Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army. I will cover some of the same ground as Andy in this section, and received help from him and his work when writing this piece.
The source of the improvement in the Florida defense is easy to identify. In the 2011-2012 season, the Florida defense held opponents to 46 percent shooting inside the three-point arc, while Gator opponents turned the ball over on 19 percent of their possessions. The two-point field goal percentage defense of Donovan's teams had been trending in the right direction since reaching a high point of 50 percent in the 2007-2008 season, but over that same period of time, Florida's defensive turnover percentage had decreased. This is clearly seen in the graph below, where from 2009 through 2012 both the two-point field goal percentage and turnover percentage of Florida opponents trended downward.
In the 2012-2013 season, the Florida defense underwent a dramatic transformation, which is also highlighted in the graph above. The Gators' two-point field goal percentage dropped, while the defensive turnover rate increased dramatically. This shift coincided with -- and was the cause of -- the nearly overnight improvement of the Florida "D." During the 2011-2012 season, Florida had the 90th-best defense in Division I, per Kenpom, whereas during the 2012-2013 season the defense ranked fourth. Going into the tournament this season, the Gators are the No. 5 defensive team.
This year, Florida's defense ranks among the best nationally in both two-point FG% defense and turnover rate. The plot below shows how Donovan's men stack up against the rest of D-I in these two critical categories. Florida is the 14th-best team in the nation when it comes to forcing turnovers, and is 13th in two-point field goal defense.
Protecting the rim without a shot blocker
Simultaneously forcing turnovers and suppressing two-point field goal percentage is a tricky thing to do. The sorts of things that teams do to force turnovers, such as playing in the passing lanes looking for deflections, often expose them at the rim. Florida has somehow achieved what it has carrying an extra handicap: the Gators lack a traditional rim-defending center. Donovan's squad only sends away 8.2 percent of opponent twos, a rate that lies below the NCAA median of 9.5.
Fortunately for Florida, there is more than one way to protect the rim. Teams that lack a great shot blocker can compensate by constructing their defense to limit chances to get to the rim. Florida does this as well as any team in the country. Only 29 percent of opponent attempts come at the rim against the Gator "D," per hoop-math.com. This is the 28th-lowest rate in D-I. Florida opponents convert shots at the rim 59 percent of the time, which is approximately the D-I median. Florida can't do anything special to stop you once you get to the hoop, so the best approach is to not let you get there in the first place.
Only 25 percent of opponent shots that occur in half-court situations are at the rim. Donovan's half-court D is compact and good at closing off penetration gaps for dribblers, as shown in the image below, which was taken from Florida's most recent game against LSU. In this image, the ball is in the upper right corner. Note that Patric Young (No. 4) has dropped off of his man (Johnny O'Bryant, No. 2), who is not an outside shooting threat. Meanwhile, the other two weak-side Florida defenders sink back around the paint. In this arrangement, four defenders are working to keep the ball out of the lane, and away from the hoop. There is nothing for a dribbler to attack.
A second tactic that Florida uses to protect the basket is frequent double-teaming after post entry passes. In the image below, the ball has been passed near the post area to 5'11 Anthony Hickey, who isn't much of a threat to "Dream Shake" his way to the basket. Florida doubles him anyway. The double team is automatic, and makes it impossible for Hickey to get to the basket. The defense rotates behind this double team, covering three players with two defenders while O'Bryant flashes to receive the ball.
When O'Bryant receives the pass, it brings us to the image below, which shows us the third thing that the Florida defense does to protect the rim: When the defense is beat, everyone collapses to harass the player getting to the bucket. Note in this picture that five defenders have converged on O'Bryant. He might have been able to kick the ball out, but the Florida defense stripped him first.
In many ways, Florida's half-court defense resembles the "D" of Iowa State, another team that has figured out how to protect the rim without an imposing shot blocker. The defense is compact, and designed to take away penetration and keep post players away from the rim. Against this sort of defense, teams will find three-point shots -- this is just an inevitable tradeoff.
And against this sort of defense, turnovers are typically rare events. But Florida overcomes this deficit with the full court press.
How Florida gets turnovers
Throughout his distinguished career, Billy Donovan has used full court pressure. Some years he has applied more pressure than others. This season the full court press is a major component of Florida' defense.
The thing that makes the Florida defense so interesting is that it layers an aggressive full court press on top of a conservative approach in the half court. It is an effective combination that allows the Gators to simultaneously protect the basket while also forcing turnovers.
There is a certain logic to the Florida approach. Players can take chances 94 feet from their own basket and still recover, but if you gamble for a steal in the half court and miss, an easy layup is a common result. It is similar to a football team that blitzes the opposing quarterback 80 yards from the goal line, but then becomes much more conservative when backed up against its own end zone.
Much like a blitzing defense, teams will occasionally beat the Florida press for an easy score. Donovan typically presses after a made basket. When opponents shoot within the first 10 seconds after a Florida score, their effective field goal percentage is 54 percent, which is the 90th-worst defensive eFG% in this situation nationally. When they can get to the rim in these circumstances, opponents generally score easily. Within the first 10 seconds after a Florida score, opponents are shooting 75 percent on layups and dunks.
The inherent risk of Florida's defense is that it will give up easy baskets in transition off of the press on occasion, but that doesn't happen all that often. Less than six percent of opponent shots come quickly after a Florida score, and only about one-third of these shots are at the rim.
Given these numbers, It is possible to estimate how much the press potentially "costs" the Gators. Six percent of shots against Florida come quickly after a score, and opponents' effective field goal percentage in these situations is about ten percentage points higher than it is against the stingy half-court D. That means that the three or four shots per game that come quickly after a Florida score are worth roughly 0.2 extra points per shot than an attempt against a dug-in Gator defense. So on average, Donovan's men are giving up at most about 0.8 extra points from the field per game this way.
We can compare this with the benefit of what an extra turnover is worth for the defense. Again, at a very approximate level, an extra turnover takes away an entire possession for an opponent, which costs the opponent about one point. So a single turnover is more than enough to pay for the cost of giving up easier shots from the field.
This analysis ignores fouls, and it might be that a team is a little bit more likely to foul when pressing. But in the Gators' case, this doesn't seem to be an issue, as Florida is one of the least foul-prone teams in the country. The Gators' opponents only average about one free throw attempt for every three shots from the field, which is the 32nd-lowest free throw rate in the nation. The Florida "D" is disciplined enough to press without fouling most of the time.
How the Florida press works
Florida's approach to full court pressure is rooted in the match-up pressure defenses cooked up by Rick Pitino two decades ago. It is a basic approach to pressing that is still employed by Pitino, as well as by Shaka Smart at VCU. While the match-up press isn't the only press that these teams employ, it is certainly the version that they use the most.
The match-up press is basically a man-to-man defense in which the defense takes moderate double-teaming risks in exchange for the chance at a turnover, but still has plenty of opportunity to recover to protect the hoop. Additionally, the defense is allowed to read the situation on the fly, and can tune its aggressiveness to its opponent. It isn't an all-out high risk attack on the ball in the way that many zone presses are.
The Florida press always starts with all five defenders matching up with an opponent, in a full-court man-to-man defense. As shown in the photo below, a defender pressures the ball handler, which helps to buy time for the defenders matching up behind him.
After the ball is inbounded, the Florida press, much like any press, can proceed in one of two ways. It is quite common for full court press teams to immediately trap the ball handler after the inbounds pass. Florida will occasionally do this, but most often does not. Instead, the plan is to eventually trap a player who is dribbling the ball.
In the image below, we see the situation right after the ball has been put into play against the Florida press. The player who has inbounded the ball is clearing out, and his defender is going with him, rather than quickly trapping the ball. Instead, a different player, labeled in the image as the "Trapping defender," will be the defender who applies the double team.
The defender who is guarding the ball has one objective -- to force the ball handler to speed dribble up the sideline. If he is able to do that, we arrive at the situation in the photo below. If the ball handler appears out of control, and is speeding up the sideline, then the trapping defender moves to double team him. The on-ball defender will attempt to cut off the dribbler and turn him right into the double team. When this approach works, the double team seems to come as if out of nowhere. Meanwhile, the next weak-side defender (labeled the "Interceptor") prepares to make a play on the ball.
One important thing about the defense is that the trap only has to happen if the dribbler is headed up the sideline out of control. If the dribbler proceeds under control, the doubling defender can just stay with his man, and the Florida "D" can fall back into regular man-to-man defense. In this way, the trap only comes when the offense is vulnerable, and the offense is given fewer chances to burn the press. Trapping a ball handler who is in control creates an advantage for the offense. Blind-siding a ball handler with a trap while he is dribbling against pressure creates an advantage for the "D."
The ideal spot for the trap is around the mid-court line. If the defense can trap the ball just as this line is passed, that is ideal. In the image below, we see what happens when that trap is applied. The on-ball defender is cutting off the dribbler while the double team is closing. This particular back-side trap is sometimes called the "cut and double" or the "turn and double." It is so effective in part because the dribbler cannot see it coming.
In this case, LSU will handle the pressure, and Florida will recover defensively and dig in for the possession. The Gators took their chance, didn't steal the ball, and then safely transitioned to their half-court "D." While the press didn't force a turnover here, later in the game it would.
What does this mean for March?
The defensive renaissance of Florida over the last two seasons has been remarkable. By balancing an appropriate amount of full court pressure with a sound and conservative half-court approach the Gator "D" both generates turnovers and protects the rim -- getting the best of both worlds. It is a style of defense that can serve Donovan's team well through March (and possibly early April).
Of course, no approach is perfect, and the Florida defense creates opportunities to exploit as well. The sort of team that the Gators could be vulnerable to is just the sort of team that knocked them out of the tournament last season -- a team that can take care of the ball and can shoot the three, just like last season's Michigan Wolverines. Teams like this -- like Virginia, Duke and Creighton -- will be lurking in the field of 68, again.
But even teams perfectly suited to attack Florida will have their hands full with a defense that does so many things well.