AUSTIN, Texas -- People call coaches overpaid and that's fair enough, but I'm not sure.
Listen to this, from Florida's Billy Donovan: "If you go back and look at our conference in regular season from a year ago, we gave up nearly 40 percent from the three-point line. And the first thing that comes into question is why, what is the problem, what is going on? So we [emphasis mine] broke down every single three-point shot that was made against us or even taken against us, from the whole entire season last year . . ."
That chilling passage does provide a glimpse of the unfathomable horror these coaches endure. If forced to revisit every single three-point shot made or taken across a season, most people would opt for something more enjoyable, such as euthanasia.
Yet in a nation of grinding basketball with downward-trending scores, a state noted for ease and flip-flops has an emblem. Here's Florida, third in the country in scoring defense (53.7), fourth in field-goal percentage defense (.377), 12th in three-point defense (.301), and a threat to Florida's all-time field-goal percentage defense from peach-basket 1957-58 (.367). Twice this season, opponents scored 10 points or fewer in first halves against Florida.
"That's the biggest concern that I have, is just their defense," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said ahead of the Minnesota-Florida second-round match.
Everywhere, there's defense. There's defense amok in the Big Ten, lauded as the top conference, and with Minnesota because, as Donovan put it, "Tubby has always been a terrific defensive coach and really sound offensively." There's defense in the first-round scoring, which went from 140.43 points five years ago to 132.75 points per game last year to 129.09 this year, leaving fans wondering what happened to those lost 3.66 points. There's defense causing general concern about distorting the sport, as Bob Thomason noted here Friday in a long, thoughtful quotation after his final game after 25 seasons coaching Pacific. "We've got tremendous athletes out there and nobody can cut or move or do anything," he said.
All over the place, we have people breaking down ever more available video of offense to hone defense. We have people studying stats until Florida guard Kenny Boynton said of Florida's so-so first half Friday, "As a team we were giving up just wide-open layups, defensive efficiency, I think they shot like 1.02."
(Note: The 1.02 refers to points per possession in a business full of men desperately trying to limit the points per possession of others, yearning for points-per-possession digits under 0.8, earning their salary yet again in obsession over points per possession.)
As an emblem for its defense, Florida has Mr. Scottie Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2, 176-pound junior guard from Gainesville who adores defense but seems a bit bewildered when people ask him about adoring defense. "I like stopping a player," he says. "It just brings satisfaction if he tries to do something and I stop him from doing it, I guess." Like all basketball players, he said, he can see some foes' frustration in facial expressions, or hear it in their comments to teammates.
"Some teams will start yelling at each other," he said.
Those are great nights.
"I think he has three qualities that enable him to be very, very good," Donovan said. "The first thing is he's got great feet. He's really got good feet. The second thing is, he is a physical defender. He can get through, around and off screens very, very well. And then I would say the third thing is he is a guy that's a tough-minded defender, maybe more so than any guard I ever coached. He values that."
So in an absurd world, many people watch basketball for the artistic beauty of an offensive move, while many coaches must watch basketball for great feet and tough minds, or the many people who watch basketball might get mad at them.
"We're always evolving -- what works, what doesn't work," said John Pelphrey, the Florida assistant and former Arkansas head coach. So Florida, a program with three Final Fours and two national titles this century, tweaked its philosophy this year, "so much so that we now talk about how, hey, it's not a bad idea to have one or two guys who maybe lean toward defending, rebounding and energy as opposed to shooting and passing," Pelphrey said.
They set about -- Pelphrey kindly listed these -- fouling less, giving up fewer easy baskets, getting their pick-and-roll coverage down, keeping guys out of the lane -- basically, all the things that help in grindingly defensive America. Florida's defense became its signature for a head coach long perceived as more of a high-flying, three-point shooting kind of guy (even if that didn't quite cover all Donovan's talents).
"Now," Pelphrey said, "we wonder how much of it is coaching and teaching, or if we've just got some guys zeroed in on playing defense." That's because these downtrodden, put-upon coaches found some clues when they looked so tirelessly and forlornly at all those three-pointers (and attempts) across a season.
"So some of it was positioning, some of it was lack of screening coverages, guys being out of place, maybe not challenging hard enough," Donovan said.
They improved their positioning. If you can wake up mornings and go to work all day and get excited about improving positioning, you just might make it in defensive America.