Billy Donovan, Florida's ferocious and efficient defense, and why the Gators might win it all

USA TODAY Sports

Florida has been known as a high-scoring team for as long as Billy Donovan has been in town. But the Gators have become elite again in 2013 with a deeper understanding of defense — and that might make them national title favorites.

There's a story about Florida's new defensive approach in the March 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine that has one of the sillier bits written by someone writing sympathetically about advanced stats.

But the cold hardwood truth is that one of the scariest squads in the land is this Gators group that had made only four top-five appearances: a shoe-squeaking, double-teaming, jersey-drenching swarm that asphyxiates opposing offenses and measures its success not just by the scoreboard but by something called DER.

For those of you still in the dark about basketball's next-level revolution, that stands for Defensive Efficiency Rating.

Good luck figuring out what Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER, as the magazine helpfully puts front and center) is if all you have is Google: "DER" and "DER basketball" aren't going to help you out, and ESPN.com's own "Hollinger Stats" — developed or "developed" by stats maven John Hollinger, who has since left ESPN for an executive job with the Memphis Grizzlies — just abbreviate offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency to OFF EFF and DEF EFF in tables.

Defensive Efficiency Rating is points per possession under a different name, and I have no idea who told Eddie Matz that it had or needed a newer, fancier name: Anyone who's been paying attention to basketball's statistical revolution already understood points per possession, or PPP, as the baseline measure of a team's efficiency.

What Matz does do well is take readers inside Billy Donovan's new commitment to efficiency on defense, and explain some of why the Gators' defense makes them national title contenders.

"I've been a big believer in advanced metrics. But I had never discussed it with my players." — Billy Donovan

Donovan tells Matz that he noticed the defensive efficiency of the four Final Four teams last year after Florida's flameout in the 2012 NCAA Tournament — which was sparked by Florida allowing 1.11 points per possession to a Louisville team that wasn't even among the nation's top 100 teams in per-possession offense, negating a fantastic offensive day against the nation's best defense. Louisville (No. 1), Ohio State (No. 2), Kansas (No. 4), and Kentucky (No. 9) all ranked in the top 10 in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, and took those Final Four spots by beating, respectively, teams ranked No. 71 (Florida), No. 17 (Syracuse), No. 11 (North Carolina), and No. 40 (Baylor) in defensive efficiency.

Defense won out in 2012, and that spurred Donovan to talk to his team about it. "I've been a big believer in advanced metrics," Donovan said. "But I had never discussed it with my players."

If discussing advanced metrics with his players were all it took for Donovan's team to go from No. 71 to the top five in defensive efficiency, he would probably have done it a long time ago. But this 2012-13 team is different on defense, and can attribute a lot of that to Donovan's ability to persuade a team of veterans to commit to defense.

Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin bought into defense from early in their careers, but Mike Rosario had to be coaxed to do more than play matador in 2011-12; now, he's a capable defender with active hands. Will Yeguete and Casey Prather looked like the components of a tremendous press in their freshman years two seasons ago, but now Yeguete is the heart and soul of Florida's defense, and Prather is an incredible pest. Patric Young looked for highlight plays routinely in his first two years, but has become a patient and potent post defender while retaining his ability to swat layups as an intimidating force. Even Erik Murphy, Florida's slowest player, is quite good as a help defender, and can use his height to make shots at the rim difficult.

Florida's defense succeeds because it does the things great basketball defenses do: It limits easy shots, prevents threes as much as possible, and forces turnovers that short-circuit offense.

Florida's defense succeeds because it does the things great basketball defenses do.

Florida's opponents shoot just 61 percent at the rim, which was the average shooting percentage at the rim in 2011-12, according to hoop-math, but just 26 percent of opponents' shots come at the rim, a stingy figure compared even to Louisville's 29 percent in 2002-13, and a downright miserly one compared to the national average of 35 percent in 2011-12. Neither Young nor Murphy is as good inside as Kentucky's Anthony Davis or Kansas' Jeff Withey, but they combine to protect the rim well, and Wilbekin and Boynton are both superb at preventing penetration. The Gators also play great defense on two-point jumpers, allowing opponents to shoot just 30 percent on them.

Florida pays for that great interior defense, to a degree, as opponents take a greater percentage of their shots as threes — 35 percent of Florida opponents' shots have been threes this season, above the 33 percent 2011-12 average. But Florida defends those threes exceptionally well, allowing opponents to shoot only 30 percent from three. Only six defenses allowing 30 percent or under from three see more threes as a percentage of shots as Florida's does, and, of those teams, only Virginia and Pittsburgh tend toward man-to-man defense as much as Florida does. (And, as should be noted when talking about Florida's three-point defense, the Gators have built big leads with such frequency that taking more threes of whatever quality has made more sense for some Florida foes.)

Florida combines that excellent shot defense with hungry hunting for turnovers: The Gators force turnovers on 23.3 percent of opponents' possessions, and get steals on 12 percent of them, both ranking in the top 40 nationally. That's not up with the absolute best in the nation — VCU's Havoc defense forces turnovers on 29.1 percent of defensive possessions, and Louisville's thieving Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are the core of a Cardinals defense that is second to VCU in turnover and steal percentage — but it's very good.

And Florida being very good at a lot of component parts of defense means its defense can be great as a whole, even without an elite individual defender or a ballyhooed system like the presses VCU and Louisville run or the zone Syracuse deploys. Florida can switch between man and zone and press as well as any team in the country, a valuable bit of versatility, and it is good at all three disciplines.

Donovan knows that his defense is good, and he knows his benchmark for good defense: "Our guys know that anything above 0.9 (PPP), they're not doing a good job. If we're talking about trying to advance in the tournament and we're above that, we're kidding ourselves." That benchmark is a good one, as Florida held its first three opponents in the 2012 NCAA Tournament under that mark, and held Virginia and Norfolk State under 0.8 PPP, then melted down against Louisville; since 2003, when KenPom first started posting efficiency statistics, Florida is 7-0 when holding its opponents under 0.9 PPP in NCAA Tournament play.

Florida has also shown the ability to do that repeatedly in 2012-13: The Gators have held an incredible 19 opponents under 0.9 PPP, and are 19-0 in those games. But the benchmark makes even more sense when you factor in that the eight games in which opponents have bested that mark have seen Florida go just 3-5, and that Florida is 0-4 when teams top 1.0 PPP.

Gators fans can take solace in the fact that the combination of a rougher schedule and Yeguete's injury helped produce four of those eight games over 0.9 in the month of February, and that, despite Florida's defense failing to hold a team under 0.8 PPP in any of its last nine games (the Gators have 10 such performances on the year), it's still solidly the No. 3 defense in KenPom's eyes.

Since 2003, 18 teams have finished in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Six have won titles. Florida is 2013's only candidate.

Combine that defense with the great offense Florida has almost always had under Donovan, though, and you get a great shot at a national title. Since 2003, there have been 18 teams that have finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency: eight of those teams have gone to the NCAA Tournament final, with six winning national titles; 11 have made Final Four appearances; and just three have bowed out before the Elite Eight, two in the bizarre 2011 NCAA Tournament. Those 18 teams are a combined 75-12 in Tourney play. (Take away 2011 and it's 68-9!)

And the four titles won by teams without dual top-10 rankings? They were all won by teams with dual top-20 rankings, even when none of the three dual top-10 teams made the Final Four in 2011 and when no team had a dual top-10 ranking in 2009.

That bodes well for 2013 Florida: The Gators are currently No. 4 in offensive efficiency and No. 3 in defensive efficiency, and no other team is currently in both top 10s.

Billy Donovan has always had successful, efficient offenses at Florida, because his ball screen-dependent attack creates many opportunities for threes and easy shots at the rim.

Now, his Gators are finally catching up to that offense's efficiency on defense, and reforging themselves as a truly great team.

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