When Anthony Gill visited Virginia before transferring from South Carolina, Cavaliers coaches told him he’d have to play defense.
Gill rolled his eyes at the statement and didn’t give it much thought. Then he got to practice.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” Gill said Thursday as Virginia prepared for Friday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Belmont. “You’re going to play defense or you’re not going to play. I think last year that was the shock factor, I had it and I didn’t really understand it.”
Gill, a junior forward who played at Charlotte Christian, has bought into coach Tony Bennett’s defensive philosophy. He’s become such a good defender for the Cavs that ACC coaches voted him on the all-defensive team.
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But Gill’s defense hasn’t always been as good. At South Carolina, Gill played mostly zone defense. So his transfer to Virginia after the 2011-12 season meant playing a more stingy man-to-man defense that dictates the Cavs’ wins and losses.
“I think we all would consider ourselves great defenders, but just learning the system probably would be the biggest thing,” Gill said. “If you are a great defender, it’s learning the system and where you need to be at the right time.”
Gill (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) is part of a Virginia defense that’s the best in the nation. Opponents average 50.7 points per game against the Cavs, which is nearly three points fewer than the second-best scoring defense in the NCAA.
“He’s just improved like most players do because he works at it,” Bennett said. “He’s very driven, and very committed to his individual development physically, skill development and he’s really a team guy, that’s the one thing about it that you just love. He came in that way. He has been a great addition and one of the better transfers you’re going to find.”
That defense will be especially needed Friday against Belmont. The Bruins rank fourth in the NCAA in 3-pointers per game and make 38.2 percent of their 3-pointers.
Belmont often uses four guards in its lineup, something that will stretch Virginia’s defense. But that’s not something the Cavs haven’t faced before. Virginia went 3-0 this season against Davidson and Virginia Tech – two squads that regularly had more guards than forwards on the floor.
That also means there could be mismatches on the offensive side of the floor. Gill averages 11.5 points per game, which is third on the team. But he also creates second-chance opportunities with his 2.1 offensive rebounds per game.
His physicality underneath has Virginia’s Justin Anderson calling him a junkyard dog, a moniker Gill doesn’t disagree with.
“He’s a character, but I guess that would be right,” Gill said. “I like physicality, and I do have some post moves in the paint.”
Gill is originally from High Point, so when Virginia played in the ACC tournament in Greensboro last week, he had ticket requests from a number of family and friends. He eventually handed out 28 tickets.
One week later, he’s getting the same requests in Charlotte.
“I think it’s great to have the support but it gets kind of stressful at times but it’s just part of it though,” Gill said. “You get a lot of love from your family and friends – and people you never really talk to the whole year, but once you come back home they want to get tickets.
“But I think it’s pretty cool, though.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9