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.

Illinois lands important commitment from four-star Class of 2017 guard Mark Smith

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Illinois landed a very important Class of 2017 commitment on Wednesday as guard Mark Smith pledged to the Illini.

The 6-foot-4 Smith was previously a Missouri commit for baseball, but some issues with his arm caused him to look back into basketball last summer. A native of Edwardsville, in the St. Louis metro area, Smith came out of nowhere to win the Illinois Mr. Basketball award as a senior this season as he averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds while becoming a consensus national top-100 prospect.

Rivals rates Smith as the No. 52 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 as he could come in and earn immediate minutes at Illinois next season at either guard spot.

This is a very important commitment for head coach Brad Underwood and the Illini as the new head coach was able to hold off some elite programs like Kentucky and Michigan State for Smith’s services.

Northwestern gets commitment from Boston College transfer A.J. Turner

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Northwestern landed a transfer on Wednesday as former Boston College wing A.J. Turner pledged to the Wildcats, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-7 Turner just finished his sophomore season with the Golden Eagles as he averaged 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. A well-rounded wing who also shot 37 percent from three-point range, Turner will have to sit out one season due to NCAA transfer regulations before getting two more years of eligibility.

With Scottie Lindsay and Vic Law only having limited time left in Evanston, Turner provides a bit of insurance on the wing for the Wildcats for the future as he’s a proven rotation player coming from the ACC.

Oakland’s Greg Kampe hosting charity golf event with big-name coaches

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Oakland head coach Greg Kampe hosted a successful charity event for cancer research two years ago by allowing people to bid online to play a round of golf with some of college basketball’s best coaches.

Kampe is back again this year as he’s hoping to eventually raise $1 million for the American Cancer Society.

According to a report from Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, Kampe has 11 high-profile names that fans can play with this year.

  • Tom Izzo, Michigan State
  • Frank Martin, South Carolina
  • Rick Barnes, Tennessee
  • Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
  • Chris Holtmann, Butler
  • Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
  • Greg Kampe, Oakland
  • Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
  • Steve Lavin
  • Fran Fraschilla
  • Bill Raftery

Fans can find more details about the auctions and all of the details here.

The minimum bid is $15,000 per coach. A “buy now” bid of $24,000 is also available.

Each round includes the following, according to the event’s website:

Up for auction will be 11 spectacular packages, featuring a private dinner with elite basketball coaches and VIPs, a one night stay at MotorCity Casino Hotel on Sunday, June 4, and an afternoon of golf on Monday, June 5 at Oakland Hills Country Club on the South Course. The winning bidders and their two guests will round out the foursomes with their selected VIP: Rick Barnes, Mick Cronin, Fran Fraschilla, Chris Holtmann, Tom Izzo, Greg Kampe, Steve Lavin, Frank Martin, Bill Raftery, Stan Van Gundy, or Kevin Willard.

There are a lot of great selections to choose from for this sort of thing, but I can’t imagine a better afternoon than playing golf with Bill Raftery and a few friends. There are some other tempting choices on this list, but that’s the one I would have to jump at.

If you think 137 players declaring for the draft is stupid, you’re probably stupid

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The NBA Draft’s full early entry list came out on Tuesday afternoon, and there were 137 underclassmen listed on it.

137.

For 60 spots in the NBA Draft, only 30 of which guarantee you a contract in the NBA.

And that’s before you factor in the 45 international players that also declared for the NBA Draft, as well as the crop of seniors — Josh Hart, Monte’ Morris, Jaron Blossomgame, Alec Peters — that are going to end up hearing their names called. All told, there are going to be roughly 200 players competing to be one of the 60 people that end up getting drafted on June 22nd, and you don’t have to be any good at math to realize that 200 is a much, much bigger number than 60.

This unleashed a torrent of bad takes on the decision of these players.

And bad may not be doing those takes justice.

Because the bottom-line is this: You cannot paint the decision on whether or not to go pro with a broad brush.

For some players, making money of any kind is something they need to do to support their family, whether it’s what they’ll get with a first round guarantee, the $75-100,000 they’ll get for making a training camp roster to subsidize their time in the D-League while teams develop them or the money they can make in the D-League or overseas. You don’t know what their financial situation is. Maximizing their ability to capitalize on every available dollar they can make off of their athletic gifts may be more important than working towards a degree.

And it’s worth noting here that a guaranteed contract isn’t the only way to make a living in professional basketball. To say nothing of the money that can be made overseas or the number of second round picks and undrafted players that make guaranteed money — which is more than you probably realize — it needs to be noted that D-League salaries are getting a bump this year with the new CBA.

The NBA has also instituted something new called a “two-way contract”. Without getting into the legalese, it’s essentially a retainer worth well into the six figures that they will be able to give to two players that will allow them to retain that player under contract while sending them between the D-League and the NBA roster. In a sense, it creates an extra 60 NBA roster spots for players that have 0-3 years worth of professional basketball on their résumé.

Some players are simply declaring without signing with an agent because they want to get feedback directly from NBA personnel on what their professional prospects. Some will hear that they need to return to school to work on their body, or work on their jumper, or mature as a person to be able to handle everything that comes with being a professional. Others will be told they’re going to make a lot of money by staying in the draft, or that they need to go back to school because, frankly, they are not professional basketball players. Not getting invited to the NBA combine is a pretty good indication of where you stand in the eyes of NBA teams.

Still other players are putting their name into the draft to leave their options open should they be recruited over by the program they are a part of. Take Frank Jackson, for example. If he can return to school and thrive as Duke’s point guard, maybe he turns into a top 20 pick. But what happens if Trevon Duval, the best point guard in the Class of 2017 and a top five pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, picks Duke? Would it be in Jackson’s best interest to come back to Duke when he won’t be playing the position that he needs to learn to play to turn himself into a lasting NBA player?

Jackson, like the roughly 100 underclassmen that have declared without an agent, has until May 24th to make his decision on whether or not he will keep his name in the draft. Until then, he can return to school without damaging his eligibility.

The entire reason that the NCAA changed their rules to allow players to test the waters is so that they can make the most important decision of their lives with as much information as humanly possible. This thing exists for the sole purpose of allowing the kids to have as much knowledge about their options as possible.

And that is exactly what these kids are doing.

So the idea that this rule, or players taking advantage of that rule, however high that number may be, is a bad thing is stupid.