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

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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.

Aaron Holiday’s value on full display as No. 23 UCLA beats Wisconsin

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With the trio of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton starting on the perimeter, UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday was forced into a supplementary role as a sophomore last season. With all three of those players gone and another highly-regarded freshman class on campus, Holiday is in a position of leadership for a UCLA program that saw its depth vanish due to the suspensions of three players who were caught shoplifting in China earlier this month.

Holiday’s been the leader the Bruins needed at this point in the season, with Tuesday’s 72-70 win over Wisconsin (2-3) in the third-place game of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City being his best outing of the season to date. Holiday capped the game with a layup with eight tenths of a second remaining to give UCLA (4-1) the win, but it was his play throughout that afforded the Bruins the opportunity to avoid suffering a second defeat in as many nights.

Holiday was efficient throughout, scoring 18 points (14 in the second half) on 7-for-12 shooting from the field and dishing out five assists without committing a turnover. The junior led five Bruins in double figures, and on a night in which a few of his teammates struggled to take care of the basketball — Prince Ali and G.G. Goloman were responsible for 11 of the team’s 19 turnovers — Holiday’s work with the ball in his hands was critical.

UCLA trailed by as much as 12 late in the first half, with their 5-0 spurt to finish the stanza giving Steve Alford’s team a boost of sorts heading into the locker room. Holiday’s layup just before the buzzer was the final basket of that run, and he would make one three-pointer and assist on another as UCLA managed to regain the lead before the first media timeout of the second half.

A dogged defender on the perimeter, Holiday’s offensive skill set and poise were incredibly important for UCLA Tuesday night and will continue to be throughout the season. While there are some veterans on the roster in addition to Holiday, most notably Thomas Welsh, UCLA will have to rely on newcomers in key positions as well (Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, especially).

Having Aaron Holiday to call upon gives UCLA a safety net of sorts; he rarely gets out of control and puts in the work on both ends of the floor night in and night out. That was the case Tuesday night at a time when UCLA needed him most, and thanks to Aaron Holiday’s play down the stretch the Bruins found a way to escape Kansas City with a win.

No. 19 Louisville doubles up Southern Illinois, 84-42

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Three games wasn’t too soon for No. 19 Louisville to enjoy a blowout after winning its first two the hard way.

Jordan Nwora came off the bench to score a career-high 18 points, Deng Adel had 16 points and the Cardinals coasted past Southern Illinois 84-42 on Tuesday night.

After scraping past George Mason and Nebraska-Omaha, the Cardinals (3-0) had a surprisingly easy time against the Salukis (2-1) once they got past the early moments. They turned a 9-6 deficit into a 29-18 halftime lead before putting put it out of reach, leading 65-30 with 6:47 remaining.

Louisville still has work ahead trying to develop chemistry with seven newcomers and a first-time coach. But the Cardinals finally saw how it looked with everyone in sync and focused.

“We wanted to come out and play well for 40 minutes and get a win,” said Louisville interim coach David Padgett, whose team shot 59 percent in the second half and 45 percent overall.

Credit the Cardinals’ youngsters for shifting things into high gear on both ends of the court.

Though the teams combined to shoot just 11 of 47 from behind the arc, Louisville’s freshmen found their mark late to help the Cardinals finish 8 of 26. Nwora had 12 career points coming in but made 4 of 6 shots in the first half for 10 points and set the tone along with Adel (12).

Louisville’s defense created offensive chances in the second half that allowed many to benefit.

“We weren’t shooting the ball well and just let the offense come to us,” said Nwora, who finished 7 of 10 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds.

“We were a little sluggish. We just knew we had to keep playing defense. He (Padgett) just said the offense will come.”

Dwayne Sutton had eight points with two 3s, guard Darius Perry had 10 points and forward Lance Thomas (five points) added one from deep for Louisville.

Louisville held SIU to a season-low 27 percent shooting, including just 3 of 21 from long range. The Salukis’ 42 points tied for their eighth-lowest total all time.

Armon Fletcher had 14 points and seven rebounds for SIU while junior center Kavion Pippen, nephew of NBA great Scottie Pippen, had 10 points.

“Their press was kind of different,” Fletcher said. “Those guys, they’re long and athletic. . We needed to run our patterns that we’d practiced. When we did, we got good shots on the other end. We’ve just got to finish around the basket.”

BIG PICTURE

Southern Illinois: Despite missing their first 11 shots, the Salukis regrouped to grab a 9-6 lead. That didn’t last long as Louisville outscored them 16-2 over 5:17 and 23-9 the rest of the first half. Inside scoring was tough against the taller Cardinals, who won that category 40-24. SIU managed to stay close on the glass for a while before eventually being beaten there 49-40. Sixteen turnovers leading to 19 Louisville points also hurt.

Louisville: The Cardinals still have a lot of rough edges, but showed much more intensity from the first two games. “That’s what our defense is capable of,” Adel said. “The first two games, it wasn’t there. … We are going to need that type of defense the whole season.” They dominated bench scoring 49-10, which they have needed in hopes of finding depth. Adel had another good game against SIU, scoring in double digits with seven rebounds after registering 12 points and 12 rebounds last December for his first career double-double.

BIRTHDAY GIFT

Louisville is 6-0 all time on Nov. 21, the birthdate of longtime sports information director Kenny Klein.

UP NEXT

Southern Illinois faces another Kentucky school on Saturday when it visits Murray State.

Louisville hosts Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) on Friday night to conclude its season-opening, four-game home stand.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

No. 16 Aggies win Progressive Classic behind Williams

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NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Williams had 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead No. 16 Texas A&M to a 98-87 victory over Penn State in the championship game of the Progressive Legends Classic on Tuesday night at Barclays Center.

Duane Wilson led the Aggies (4-0) with 22 points while Tyler Davis chipped in 15, Admon Gilder had 14 and Tonny Torcha-Morelos finished with 11.

Despite getting a career-high 31 points from Tony Carr, Penn State (5-1) lost its first game of the season. Lamar Stevens added 25 points for Penn State.

The Aggies took a 42-40 lead into halftime due to Williams’ two-hand follow jam with 4 seconds left in the half. Seven of the eight players who got into the game in the first half for Texas A&M scored, led by Williams’ 12.

And the Aggies needed every point, as Carr was a one-man offensive onslaught for the Nittany Lions. Carr had 21 points in the opening half on 7-of-8 shooting including 2 for 2 from 3-point range. He made 5 of 6 free throws.

Texas A&M took a 63-51 lead on Wilson’s scoop layup 6:41 into the second half. Wilson’s layup was the culmination of a stretch in which the Aggies outscored the Nittany Lions 21-11.

Following Wilson’s layup, Penn State coach Pat Chambers called time out. DJ Hogg hit a 3 for the Aggies, Gilder made two free throws and Williams finished a 2-on-1 break with a two-handed jam off an alley-oop pass which pushed the lead to 70-53.

Penn State used an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to 70-61.

After a layup by Gilder pushed the lead to 72-61, the Nittany Lions scored the next five points on a layup by Carr and three free throws from Stevens. That was as close as they would get.

Williams was named tournament MVP, and was joined on the all-tournament team by Wilson, Carr, Stevens and Oklahoma State’s Jeffrey Carroll.

BIG PICTURE:

PENN STATE: The positive for Penn State is that Carr and Stevens combined for 56 points. The negative? The rest of the Nittany Lions totaled 31.

TEXAS A&M: The defensively stout Aggies were able to flex their offensive muscle against Penn State. Texas A&M made 33 of 54 shots (61 percent) from the field and knocked down 26 of 29 (89.7 percent) free throws.

NOTABLE:

PENN STATE: In the Chambers Era, the Nittany Lions are 4-3 all-time in games played in New York City, and 2-2 at games held at Barclays Center.

TEXAS A&M: The Aggies improved to 4-0 all-time against the Nittany Lions. Texas A&M is 2-0 at neutral site venues against Penn State.

UP NEXT:

PENN STATE: Hosts Oral Roberts on Friday.

TEXAS A&M: Hosts Pepperdine on Friday.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Trayvon Reed ends up on wrong end of Udoka Azubuike dunk

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Listed at 7-feet, 280 pounds, Kansas redshirt freshman Udoka Azubuike is an imposing figure on the basketball court. If he gets his defender pinned underneath the basket, there’s a good chance that Azubuike is going to finish things off with a powerful dunk.

That’s exactly what happened in the first half of Kansas’ home game against Texas Southern, with 7-foot-2 center Trayvon Reed being on the receiving end of a vicious poster-worthy dunk. Had this been on a fast break maybe Reed has the opportunity to make a “business decision.” No such luck in a half-court set, however.

Jalek Felton serves up first poster dunk of collegiate career

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The final seconds of No. 9 North Carolina’s 96-72 win at Stanford Monday night proved to be far more eventful than many anticipated, thanks to freshman guard Jalek Felton. The nephew of former Tar Heel point guard and 2005 national champion Raymond Felton, Jalek drove towards the basket with Stanford’s 6-foot-11 sophomore big man Trevor Stanback standing in the way.

The attempt to stop Felton at the rim did not work out well for Stanback. And someone on the North Carolina bench was so fired up about the dunk that he broke into a full sprint towards the baseline.

North Carolina played the game, with Stanford being coached by one of Roy Williams’ former players in Jerod Haase, ahead of its trip to Portland for the inaugural PK80 event.