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.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.