ARLINGTON, Texas — He can’t really pinpoint when it was or who it was, but Patric Young knows at some point during his time playing AAU basketball a coach instructed him while playing defense to ”hedge” when opposing teams ran pick-and-roll plays on offense.
”I didn’t really know what it meant,” Young said. ”So I sort of went over by the guy with the ball and was sort of just there, moving my hands, trying to distract him.”
Things are slightly more complicated these days. Young is slightly more in tune with his defense, as well.
How much so?
”He is, by far, the best guy I have ever had in the frontcourt at defending the pick and roll,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Think about that. At UF, Donovan coached Joakim Noah, Al Horford and David Lee, three players who currently are playing under long-term NBA contracts that total about $250 million. Noah and Horford were the backbone of a Florida defense that won back-to-back national championships.
Donovan, though, sees the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Young as a cut above those players because of his ability to alter the rhythm of a play that has evolved over the years to become one of the staples of basketball, both in college and certainly in the pros. That’s a good thing, especially this week, because the top-ranked Gators (36-2) are about to face an 18th-ranked Connecticut Huskies (30-8) squad that runs pick-and-rolls in its sleep. UF will have to be on point in its coverages or else first-team All-America point guard Shabazz Napier and backcourt mate Ryan Boatright will carve the Gators right out of the Final Four in Saturday night’s national semifinals at AT&T Stadium.
Napier scored 26 points when the two teams met last Dec. 2, hitting a buzzer-beating jumper to hand Florida its last loss — 30 games and 121 days ago. Everyone knows Napier is a master shot-maker, but he’s also incredibly adept at getting himself spaced off screens and frequently tries to split pick and rolls and double-teams, oftentimes to the defense’s detriment.
”And he doesn’t even need that stuff to get open and get one off,” Donovan said.
No, but the Huskies run it well enough to score against a Florida defense that is giving up just 54 percent, 38.9-percent shooting from the floor, 24.3 from 3-point range and has won all four NCAA Tournament games by double-digits.
UConn did it well enough last time to win 65-64.
This time, Young will go into the game against the Huskies as the reigning 2014 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, an honor bestowed on him for a combination of his skill, desire, technique and basketball IQ.
”He makes all of the rest of us look good,” said senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, a pretty good on-ball defender in his own right. ”If we get beat, he’s usually there to save the day, get a charge or wall up to force a difficult shot. He definitely makes me look good when I’m guarding the best perimeter player. He doesn’t let them get anything easy off screens and allows me to get back on the ball.”
This season, Wilbekin has had to guard the likes of Napier, Kentucky’s James Young, Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson, along with the Missouri duo of Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, and that means mega-screening action and lots of fighting through bodies.
When Young’s man sets a screen on Wilbekin — or any UF guard — the ball-handler is immediately met by the menacing sight of Young’s big body ”downing” the play or ”corralling” it long enough to allow Wilbekin to get back on his man and Young to dash back into the post.
Then it starts all over again.
In an average game, the Gators may be put in that situation 15-25 times; more when a team’s offense is predicated on pick-and-roll, much like UF’s.
That Florida’s offense is based on pick-and-roll means the Gators — and Young — are defending the play dozens of times every practice, which mean’s he’s seen in and executed against it thousands of times over his four-year UF career against teammates alone.
”He’s a basketball player that understands the whole, not just a part,” assistant coach Rashon Burno said. ”He has an unbelievable memory and understanding of pick and roll, but also of the other team’s offensive players. Pat has an innate ability to really anticipate the game’s next play. This game is about movement and adjustment and he does that on the fly.”
The way Young moves with purpose, gets into position and recovers is the centerpiece of what makes the Florida defense special.
”I would not classify him as an efficient mover — Patric sometimes looks like he’s struggling and laboring — but he’s a disciplined, efficient mover. There’s no waste of motion with him,” Donovan said. ”He’s loud. He’s vocal. We have three different coverages that we call out [down, corral or switch] based on where the pick-and-roll is and he’s the catalyst of that.”
Basically, Young is the defensive traffic cop; in the middle of it all, seeing it all and directing it all.
”You need to be athletic to guard it because if you’re feet are slow you’ll have guys like Clarkson, who’s really quick, just going right around you,” Young said. ”But you also have to be smart. Some guards are so good at knowing how to beat pick and rolls, so you have to move your feet, be early to the spot and be aggressive. More than anything else, you have to be 100 percent locked in and in the moment. ‘I’m not letting this guy go around me.’ That’s the mindset I have.”