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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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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.

Miami dismisses guard from program

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Miami announced on Friday afternoon that Miles Wilson has been dismissed from the program for “not meeting team expectations.”

The school provided no other comment or explanation for the dismissal.

Wilson, a 6-foot-2 combo guard, averaged 11.8 points and 3.9 boards as a freshman at Mount St. Mary’s before opting to transfer out of the program. He sat out the 2017-18 season in Coral Gables as his mandatory redshirt season.

“Miles comes to the U after a very successful year at Mount St. Mary’s, where he helped them reach the NCAA tournament,” Jim Larrañaga said in a statement at the time Wilson committed to the Hurricanes. “Miles has the size, length and athletic ability to be an outstanding defender; in addition, he has the shooting and ball handling skills to be a real threat at the offensive end.”

VIDEO: Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton jumped out of a plane

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Don’t worry.

He was skydiving.

USC adds to top 2019 class with four-star recruit Kyle Sturdivant

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Andy Enfield’s 2019 recruiting haul already includes two five-star, top-20 recruits along with a pair of additional four-star prospects in the top-100. It’s good enough, right now, for USC to own the best class in the country.

And on Thursday, the Trojans added to it.

Kyle Sturdivant, a top-100 recruit out of Georgia, has committed to the Trojans.

The 6-foot-3 point guard previously committed to his home-state Bulldogs and new coach Tom Crean, but backed off that pledge last month. He also had offers from Cal, Clemson, Auburn and Florida, among others.

Sturdivant put up 16.2 points, 5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game last season while playing alongside top-five recruit Vernon Carey on Team Takeover Florida.

His commitment gives Enfield a point guard in an already loaded class. The Trojans previously received commitments from five-stars Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu and four-stars Max Agbonkpolo and Drake London, giving them the consensus top class in the country this fall.

The Trojans’ continued success keeps the trend alive of schools who were caught up in the FBI corruption investigation simply shaking it off and landing more top talent.

The kings stay the kings.

Top junior college transfer Chris Duarte commits to Oregon

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Dana Altman and Oregon have reached into the junior college ranks to pick up their first commitment in the 2019 class.

Chris Duarte, a top juco from Northwest Florida State, committed to the Ducks on Thursday, it was announced.

“NWF State helped me grow as a player on and off the court,” Duarte said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the staff who has helped me become the player I need to be to play at a Division I program like Oregon. I’m very excited and thankful for this opportunity.”

In his freshman season at Northwest Florida State, the 6-foot-6 former 2017 Western Kentucky signee averaged 12.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2 steals per game en route to all-conference honors as the Raiders won a state championship and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NJCAA tournament.

“Chris is an outstanding student-athlete who represents Northwest Florida State well,” Northwest Florida State coach Steve DeMeo said in a statement. “The University of Oregon is the best decision for him and I am excited to see what his future holds as he finishes up his career as a Raider and heads to Eugene to play at the next level.”

Duarte will play for the Raiders this upcoming season and then will have two years of eligibility remaining with the Ducks. He is considered one of, if not the, top junior college player in the country.

Oklahoma lands commitment from four-star prospect Jalen Hill

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Lon Kruger continues to assemble a monster 2019 recruiting class.

The Sooners received a commitment Thursday from Jalen Hill, a four-star wing from Las Vegas, to bolster a group that already is among the best in the country.

Hill chose the Sooners after visiting earlier this month. He had also visited TCU and had trips scheduled to DePaul and St. John’s. He also sported offers from Oregon, Arizona and Illinois. The 6-foot-7 small forward announced his decision at his school Thursday.

“I thought that it was just the best fit for me,” Hill told Rivals. “The the players over there are great and I just loved the coaching staff, really. They let you rock over there and let you be you.”In terms of everything else, they didn’t have a lot of wings coming back at that position. They compared me to Buddy Hield a little and said they might use me as a shooting guard and as a small forward.”

Hill averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the EYBL with the Las Vegas Prospects. He’s the latest edition to Oklahoma’s 2019 class that already includes two top-100 prospects. De’Vion Harmon, a top-50 point guard from Texas, committed to Kruger and Co. last November while Victor Iwuaker, a top-100 forward also from Texas, pledged earlier this month. It’s a consensus top-10 class.

It’s hard to call Kruger underrated given the success he’s had in the college ranks and his stint in the NBA, but even with that recent Final Four run and the Trae Young Experience last year, the Oklahoma coach rarely seems to get his due as one of the top coaches in the country. He keeps winning – both on the floor and the recruiting trail.