Film Session: How does Virginia’s ‘Pack-Line’ defense work, and how do you beat it

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Tony Bennett, Getty Images

Tony Bennett’s reputation as one of the best coaches in college basketball is well-deserved.

Taking over for his father, Dick, at Washington State, Bennett led the Cougars to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances — and their only trip to the Sweet 16 since World War II — in his first two years in Pullman. Including Bennett’s time at the helm of the program, Wazzu has been to a total of six NCAA tournaments, with Bennett’s being the only two tickets they’ve punched in the last 20 seasons.

In 2009, Bennett left Washington State to take over the Virginia program. The Cavaliers have a much more storied tradition than their Cougar counterparts — Remember the Ralph Sampson years? — but Virginia had won just a single NCAA tournament game in their three appearances in the 15 seasons prior to his arrival.

The ‘Hoos weren’t competing with Duke and North Carolina for ACC titles, and that was before the league added the likes of Louisville and Syracuse to the mix.

And yet, here we are in 2015, and Virginia is 13-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country, the reigning ACC regular season and tournament champion and coming off a season where they were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. It’s only his sixth season in Charlottesville, and Bennett has turned Virginia into a bonafide ACC power in a league with more traditional powerhouses than any other conference in the country.

Making that all-the-more impressive is the fact that Bennett hasn’t relied simply on amassing gobs of extreme talent to win. For comparison’s sake, Duke and Kentucky, the other two teams currently without a loss this season, have a combined 18 McDonald’s all-americans and eight players projected as potential first round picks in this year’s NBA Draft. Virginia doesn’t even have a former consensus top 50 recruit, and unless an NBA team is willing to use a first round pick on Justin Anderson — a future Bruce Bowen-esque, three-and-D wing — they may not even have a future NBA player on their roster.

So how’s he done it?

With a man-to-man, containment defense made famous by his father, simply called the ‘Pack-Line’.

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AP Photo

WHAT IS THE PACK-LINE?

Conceptually, it’s pretty simple. Encourage dribble penetration into help, takeaway post touches, force contested jumpers over the top of the defense and clean up the defensive glass.

There are two core principles to the Pack-Line: The player guarding the man with the ball is to provide intense ball-pressure well beyond the three-point line while the other four help defenders are to all be within an imaginary, 16-foot arc. What this does is encourage penetration into those help-defenders, known as ‘The Pack’, forcing kick-outs to spot-up shooters who will have to take a jumper with a defender running at them. Specifics on things like defending pick-and-rolls, doubling the post and giving up baseline penetration will differ from coach to coach and often depends on an opponent’s personnel — Virginia isn’t going to defend Jahlil Okafor’s post touches the same way they will Miami’s bigs — but the philosophy will remain the same.

One of those philosophies is that every ball-handler sees three jerseys in front of him: the man guarding him and the help defender if he drives left or right. It’s a concept known as ‘elbows’, as in a ball-handler at the top of the key should be able to see the help at both of the elbows. The same goes for a player on either wing, although the goal here is to avoid giving up baseline penetration — As one coach that runs the Pack-Line put it, “We do not get beat to the outside.” — as the help is in the middle of the lane.

This causes two problems for the offense. For starters, any player that is going to get all the way to the rim is going to have to beat his man and a help defender before finishing over a shot-blocker around the basket. That’s not easy to do. But since the help defender is already in help position, he has one less move to make to challenge a jump-shooter. Instead of hedging and recovering, the help defender simply has to stop the penetration and close out long at the shooter. It sounds subtle, but not having to change direction makes the likelihood of the player that’s spotting up getting a clean look at the rim that much smaller.

Here’s a perfect example. Sheldon McClellan uses a nifty behind-the-back dribble to get passed two defenders. Devon Hall (in the red box) is already in a position to cut off McClellan’s penetration, forcing him to kick the ball out to Angel Rodriguez (in the bluebox):

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Screengrab via ESPN

Hall is able to run out at Rodriguez, getting there in time to challenge the jumper and helping to force a miss:

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Screengrab via ESPN

Here’s full video of the play:

Virginia’s method of defending ball-screens is to hedge hard, to have the man guarding the screener step out of prevent the ball-handler from turning the corner. They’ll also prevent passes into the paint — no cutters, no post touches, no drivers dropping off passes to big men; if an opponent catches a pass, it’s outside the pack. If there happens to be a post touch, however, Virginia will typically use a big-to-big double on the catch.

Here’s an example of a perfect defensive possession for Virginia. No dribbler gets any kind of an angle coming off of a ball-screen, no passes are caught within 23 feet of the rim and the possession ends with Davon Reed, being guarded by Malcom Brogdon, dribbling straight into Justin Anderson’s help. He kicks it out to McClellan, who has to force a 22-foot three with Anderson’s hand in his face:

HOW DO YOU BEAT IT?

The biggest key to breaking down Virginia’s defense is to have ball-handlers that can create off the dribble and shooters that can knock down contested threes. When push comes to shove, the Pack-Line defense is structured around the idea an opponent isn’t going to be able to hit enough threes to beat them. They want you to drive into defense, kick the ball out and shoot jumpers with a hand in your face. Teams that can do that are going to give them trouble.

It’s part of the reason that I think No. 13 Notre Dame is going to be the first team to knock off the Cavaliers when Virginia heads to South Bend on Saturday. As I wrote yesterday, Notre Dame’s offense is built around Jerian Grant — and, to a lesser extent, Demetrius Jackson — getting put in ball-screen actions while surrounded by shooters. Their offense, quite literally, is built around drive-and-kick threes.

If you aren’t blessed enough to have a first-team all-american playmaker on the same team as three shooters knocking down at least 40 percent of their threes, there’s still an answer: Movement. Not just ball movement, player movement.

Creating offensive actions on both sides of the floor is key to breaking down the Pack-Line. One of the standards of the defense is for defenders to trail all screens off-the-ball, with the man guarding the screener hedging up to protect against the curl. By running shooters off of screening actions on the weak-side of the floor, it limits the ability of the help defenders to create that Pack-Line.

Davidson did this beautifully in the first half of their loss at Virginia, and this may be the best example I can give you. Watch how much movement there is on this possession:

But the key comes at the very end of the possession. Payton Aldridge (in the red box) gets an iso against Evan Nolte on the wing. Nathan Ekwu is on the block on the same side while Brian Sullivan and Tyler Kalinoski (red arrows) are both setting up their defenders as if they are going to run off of a weak-side down-screen:

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Screengrab via ESPNU

As Aldridge makes his move to the baseline, look at where the three Virginia help defenders (green boxes) are looking. Hint: It’s not at the ball:

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Screengrab via ESPNU

Kalinoski draws the help from Darion Atkins, but by the time that Virginia’s three other defenders realize what is happening, Ekwu has an open dunk.

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Screengrab via ESPNU

That weak-side downscreen action took Virginia out of their Pack-Line.

And if you’re going to beat the Cavs this season, that’s how you have to do it.

The Top 25 Non-Conference Games

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Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

While much of the nation doesn’t start paying attention to college basketball until after the Super Bowl, there are plenty of must-see matchups that happen starting in November, when some of the country’s best programs square off in non-conference matchups. From holiday tournaments to neutral-site spectacles to on-campus clashes, the 2017-18 season has some great non-league offerings.

1. Duke vs. Michigan State – Champions Classic (Chicago) – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): The Champions Classic never fails to deliver, and this season it’s giving the country the top-two teams in NBC Sports’ preseason Top 25 squaring off in the first week of the season. This game has it all, from national title contenders to a National Player of the Year favorite (Miles Bridges) to a potential No. 1 2018 NBA Draft pick (Marvin Bagley III) to everyone’s favorite villain (Grayson Allen). This is as can’t miss as can’t miss gets.

2. Kentucky vs. Kansas – Champions Classic (Chicago) – Nov. 14 (9:30 p.m.): Another pair of top-five teams will clash in the nightcap at the United Center when the Wildcats and Jayhawks tangle. It’ll also be the country’s first chance to evaluate what figure to be immensely talented but somewhat mysterious rosters. Kentucky surely has the players, though the fit, once again mostly who shoots it, questionable. Kansas is just downright weird. There will be a whole season to play after this game, but it should provide a hint to how good – or flawed – both of these Final Four hopefuls are.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

3. PK80 (Portland) – Nov. 23-26: The 80th birthday present Nike founder Phil Knight is throwing himself might be the most anticipated tournament (non-Big Dance division) in the sport’s history. It features 13 of the sport’s biggest brands. Plus Portland and Portland State. And DePaul, courtesy of Georgetown’s ducking real competition in Patrick Ewing’s debut season. The field may not be as strong as hoped when it was announced last year, but it’s still going to provide awesome matchups that are so rare in non-conference hoops. Spend your Thanksgiving in Portland. You won’t be disappointed.

4. UCLA vs. Kentucky (New Orleans) – Dec. 23 (4 p.m.): Christmas comes early in New Orleans with a replay of two of the more anticipated/enjoyed games of 2016-17. Both teams have overturned their rosters since the Ball vs. Fox Family War of Words, but both will probably be ranked in the top-15 come late December and two of college basketball’s most storied programs squaring off is always appointment television. The only downside here is that with the storied gyms of Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena at their disposal, the two powerhouse programs instead are playing at Smoothie King Center. Remember, this is all about the student-athlete.

5. Kentucky at West Virginia – SEC/Big 12 Challenge – Jan. 27 (4:30 or 7 p.m.): The schedule of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge is kind of silly, plopping it right in the middle of the conference season (though less so than the Big Ten’s schedule gymnastics), but getting John Calipari vs. Bob Huggins is fantastic, no matter when it happens. Given that it’s happening on-campus in Morgantown between two teams that could be ranked in the top-10 at the time, it’s reason to celebrate.

6.. Louisville at Kentucky – Dec. 29 (1 p.m.): Two top-10 teams, two bitter in-state rivals and one on-campus game. Good on these two programs, and lucky for us.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

7. Seton Hall at Louisville – Billy Minardi Classic – Dec. 3 (4 p.m.): Everyone will know going into the season how strong the Cardinals are, but Seton Hall may be a bit overlooked, even if they open the year as a top-20 team. The Pirates have a really fun group that includes Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez. They’re going to make some noise in the Big East, and they’ll have a chance to announce their intentions in early December.

8. Cincinnati vs. Florida – Never Forget Tribute Classic (Newark, N.J.) – Dec. 9 : The Bearcats return a ton from a 30-win team and the Gators’ roster is mainly unchanged after last year’s Elite 8 run. Two veteran teams with major aspirations will be taking the floor with their eyes on maybe moving a seed-line with a resume-boosting win.

9. Villanova vs. Gonzaga (New York) – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Some of the biggest names from last season’s rosters are gone from both of these teams, but the programs remain two of the best in the country and this year’s teams will be no slouches. The Josh Perkins/Jalen Brunson matchup is worth tuning into all by itself.

10. Miami at Minnesota – Big Ten/ACC Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): This may not look like a top-10 game at first blush, but both the Hurricanes and Gophers are going to have serious teams this year. Jim Larranaga’s squad is going to have guards galore while Richard Pitino brings back nearly everyone from last year’s squad, by far the best he’s had in Minneapolis. This easily could be a matchup of top-10 teams.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

11. Cincinnati at UCLA – Dec. 16 (3:30 p.m.): Both the Bearcats and Bruins have solid non-conference schedules this season, and this matchup will be among the best for both.

12. Cincinnati at Xavier – Dec. 2 (Noon): The Crosstown Shootout is a must-see every year, and with the Bearcats and Musketeers set to be top-20 teams, this year’s no different.

13. Alabama at Arizona – Dec. 9 : There will be a ton of talent on display in Tucson with DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Atkins on the Wildcats’ side and freshman Collin Sexton for the Crimson Tide.

14. Notre Dame at Michigan State – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (7 p.m.): Michigan State’s Miles Bridges is one of the sport’s highest-flyers while Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson gets his while barely ever leaving the floor. Having them on the same court at the same time offers great contrast – and probably a lot of buckets.

15. Virginia Tech at Kentucky – Dec. 16 (2 p.m.): Zach LeDay and Seth Allen are gone, but Buzz Williams’ team should still have enough to give Kentucky trouble in Rupp Arena.

16. Texas at VCU – Dec. 5 (6 p.m.): Shaka Smart returns to Richmond just over two years after leaving the Rams for the Longhorns in what is sure to be an emotional trip. Plus, it’s a chance to watch Mo Bamba, who very well could be a top-five draft pick come June.

17. Indiana at Louisville – Dec. 9 (2 p.m.): The Hoosiers may not be a national contender this year, but it’s Archie Miller’s first foray into the Indiana/Kentucky hoops battles, even if it’s not with his program’s traditional southern rival.

Glen Johnston, Texas A&M Athletics

18. Texas A&M vs. West Virginia – Armed Forces Classic (Ramstein-Miesenbach, German) – Nov. 10 (6 p.m.): The Mountaineers and Aggies tip off the hoops season overseas at the Ramstein Air Base with Robert Williams leading the way for the Aggies.

19. Wichita State at Baylor – Dec. 2 (2 p.m.): Gregg Marshall might have his best team ever with the Shockers with everyone back from last year’s squad that finished in the KenPom top-10 despite just getting a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bears lost Johnathan Motley, but with Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil back, Scott Drew should have Baylor in the top-25

20. Missouri vs. Illinois (St. Louis) – Dec. 23: This is one of probably two high-profile non-conference games for Michael Porter, Jr. to showcase his potential top-pick talent, plus it pits Mizzou’s Jeremiah Tilmon against the program he initially committed to before defecting to the Tigers ahead of Brad Underwood’s first year in Champaign.

21. Butler at Maryland – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): Another first-week gem that has the Bulldogs heading to College Park to face Justin Jackson and the Terps.

22. Duke at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): The Blue Devils visit Assembly Hall for just the second time ever and the first since the 2005-06 season.

23. Arizona vs. Texas A&M (Phoenix) – Dec. 5 (10 p.m.): DeAndre Ayton vs. Robert Williams. That should be fun.

24. Baylor at Florida – SEC/Big 12 Challenge – Jan. 27 : The SEC/BIg 12 Challenge is stocked with awesome matchups, but this one has a chance to be a good one.

25. South Dakota State at Kansas – Nov. 17 (8 p.m.): The Jackrabbits’ Mike Daum is a potential All-American. He’s got a chance to build some November hype at Allen Fieldhouse.

CBT’s 2017-18 College Basketball Season Preview Schedule

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Believe it or not, but college basketball season technically begins this week, as programs around the country are allowed to start practicing as early as September 29th, this Friday.

With that in mind, it’s time for us to kick off the process of previewing the 2017-18 season, getting you ready for everything that will happen in our beloved sport for the next five months with a series of predictions that, hopefully, won’t prove to be totally and completely wrong by the end of the year.

Here is a complete schedule of everything you can expect to see from us over the next six weeks.

And be sure to bookmark this page, as we will be updating the schedule with links as each story gets posted. That way, if you miss anything — which is unlikely if you follow @CBTonNBC on twitter and like the College Basketball Talk page on FaceBook — you can go back and find it quite easily.

As always, the easiest way to access the podcasts is to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or any other place that you can listen to podcasts.

AWARDS

Sep. 26: NBCSports.com All-American Team | Podcast Breakdown
Sep. 26: Expert Picks and Predictions
Oct. 30-Nov. 3: Preseason Top 25 Countdown
Oct. 30: Mid-Major All-Americans
Oct. 30: Mid-Major Power Rankings

RANKINGS

Oct. 23-27: Top 100 Players Countdown
Oct. 24: Top Backcourts
Oct. 24: Top Frontcourts
Oct. 25: Top Lead Guards
Oct. 25: Top Off-Guards
Oct. 26: Top Wings
Oct. 27: Top Big Men

CONTENDERS SERIES

Oct. 2: Final Four Sleepers
Oct. 9: Final Four Favorites, part 1
Oct. 13: Final Four Favorites, part 2
Oct. 16-20: The Top Five

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

Sep. 28: WCC
Oct. 2: ACC | Preview Podcast
Oct. 4: Mountain West
Oct. 5: Atlantic 10
Oct. 6: American
Oct. 9: Big Ten | Preview Podcast
Oct. 16: Big 12 | Preview Podcast
Oct. 23: Pac-12 | Preview Podcast
Oct. 31: SEC | Preview Podcast
Nov. 6: Big East | Preview Podcast

Sep. 28: America East
Sep. 29: Atlantic Sun
Oct. 3: Big Sky
Oct. 3: Big South
Oct. 4: Big West
Oct. 5: CAA
Oct. 6: Conference USA
Oct. 10: Horizon
Oct. 10: Ivy
Oct. 11: MAAC
Oct. 11: MAC
Oct. 12: MEAC
Oct. 13: Missouri Valley
Oct. 17: NEC
Oct. 17: Ohio Valley
Oct. 18: Patriot
Oct. 19: SoCon
Oct. 20: Southland
Oct. 24: SWAC
Oct. 25: Summit
Oct. 26: Sun Belt
Oct. 27: WAC

LISTS

Sep. 25: Best Non-Conference Games
Sep. 27: Programs on the Rise and Decline
Sep. 27: Impact Transfers
Sep. 29: Perry Ellis All-Stars
Oct. 31: Top Dunkers
Nov. 1: Coaches on the Hot Seat
Nov. 1: Key Assistant Coaching Hires
Nov. 1: Best, Worst Head Coaching Changes
Nov. 2: Impact Freshmen
Nov. 3: Breakout Stars
Nov. 7: Under-the-Radar Stars
Nov. 7: X-Factors
Nov. 8: Potential Cinderellas
Nov. 9: Most Important Players
Nov. 10: 68 Things To Watch For
Nov. 10: BOLD PREDICTIONS

Kansas lands second commitment in the Class of 2018

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Kansas landed their second big man in the Class of 2018 on Sunday, as David McCormack, a top 50 prospect, announced that he will be a Jayhawk when he plays his college ball.

The 6-foot-10 center picked Kansas over Xavier, NC State, Oklahoma State and Duke.

A product of the famed Oak Hill Academy, McCormack averaged 15 points and 10 boards on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit this spring. He joins fellow four-star big man Silvio de Sousa in the 2018 class for Bill Self, although the Jayhawks will get three players eligible after they sit out the 2017-18 season as transfers: Dedric and K.J. Lawson, who transferred in from Memphis, as well as Charlie Moore, a point guard from California.

Report: North Carolina won’t attend White House

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After capturing a national championship earlier this year, the North Carolina men’s basketball team will not be visiting the White House, a North Carolina spokesman said to Andrew Carter of the The Charlotte Observer.

Although the Tar Heels were invited to go to the White House from the staff of President Donald Trump, the team couldn’t figure out a date that worked.

“We couldn’t find a date that worked for both parties,” North Carolina team spokesman Steve Kirschner said to Carter. “We tried about eight or nine dates and between they couldn’t work out that date, we couldn’t work out that date, so – we would have liked to have gone, but not going.”

According to Carter’s report, Kirschner also said that North Carolina players, “were fine with going.”

With Trump’s recent comments towards NFL players and the national anthem and his Saturday morning tweet at Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the President with regards to athletes over the past 24 hours.

Although the timing of this may seem like North Carolina is making some sort of political statement, the school is downplaying any sort of politics by focusing on the bad timing.

Xavier freshman forward Jared Ridder will transfer

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Xavier freshman forward Jared Ridder will transfer from the program to move closer to home, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-7 Ridder hails from Springfield, Missouri as he was regarded as a top-150 prospect by Rivals in the Class of 2017.

“After much consideration and talking with my family, I have decided that it is in my best interest to move home,” Ridder said in the release.

“Jared has indicated to the coaching staff that he has a desire to be closer to home,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “While we are disappointed, we all want Jared to be happy moving forward. We wish him nothing but the best.”

A potent scorer and noted perimeter shooter at the high school level, Ridder helped MoKan win the Nike Peach Jam during the summer of 2016 playing alongside talented players like Missouri’s Michael and Jontay Porter and Oklahoma’s Trae Young. With a desire to move closer to home, could Ridder potentially land at a spot where one of his talented former teammates is playing?

Ridder averaged 24.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists during his senior season of high school ball at Kickapoo as he was a first-team, All-State selection in Missouri.