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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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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.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga

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Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?

When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.

And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Or something like that.

The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.

The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.

And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.

I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (9-1, Last week: 2)
2. Michigan (10-0, 3)
3. Tennessee (7-1, 6)
4. Gonzaga (9-1, 1)
5. Virginia (9-0, 4)
6. Kansas (8-0, 5)
7. Nevada (10-0, 7)
8. Auburn (8-1, 8)
9. North Carolina (7-2, 9)
10. Florida State (8-1, 10)
11. Texas Tech (8-0, 11)
12. Michigan State (8-2, 13)
13. Virginia Tech (8-1, 14)
14. Wisconsin (8-2, 15)
15. N.C. State (8-1, 17)
16. Ohio State (8-1, 19)
17. Arizona State (7-1, 20)
18. Purdue (6-4, 18)
19. Villanova (8-2, UR)
20. Syracuse (7-2, UR)
21. Marquette (8-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (9-0, UR)
23. Mississippi State (8-1, 25)
24. Iowa (7-2, 23)
25. Nebraska (8-2, 24)

New Additions: 19. Villanova, 20 Syracuse, 21. Marquette
Dropped Out: 12. Kentucky, 16. Kansas State, 21. Creighton

Virginia point guard to undergo wrist surgery

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Virginia’s starting point guard Kihei Clark will undergo surgery on his left wrist on Monday, head coach Tony Bennett told reporters after the No. 4 Cavaliers knocked off VCU in Charlottesville, 57-49, on Sunday.

Clark played 33 minutes in the win. He held VCU’s star Marcus Evans to three points on 1-for-10 shooting. He changed the game when he forced a 10-second violation in the backcourt all by himself, a play that came after Virginia had knotted the game up at 43; they had been trailing 43-38. By the time VCU came to again, UVA had pushed the lead to 53-45, and the game was all but over.

Should I mention that Clark actually suffered the hairline fracture in his wrist on Dec. 3rd, that he spent a week practicing and 33 minutes on Sunday playing with a cast on?

That sums up everything that you need to know about the Virginia freshman. He’s the first wave of Virginia’s defense, the kind of tough and aggressive point guard and on-ball defender that Tony Bennett loves. He’s also the piece that allows Ty Jerome to play off the ball for extended periods, and his presence in the backcourt means that Kyle Guy can slide over to the three and De’Andre Hunter, Virginia’s resident all-american and future lottery pick, can play the position that fits him best — the four.

The good news is that this does not appear to be a season-ending injury, although Clark told reporters that he was not given a timetable for a return. The Cavs have also gotten through the most difficult part of their non-conference schedule; they play at South Carolina and get William & Mary and Marshall at home before league play kicks off on Jan. 5th.

That’s four weeks away.

Four Takeaways from No. 7 Tennessee’s win over No. 1 Gonzaga

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Sunday afternoon gave us another early-season instant classic, as No. 7 Tennessee ended Gonzaga’s unbeaten run and likely knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the polls with a thrilling, 76-73 win in Phoenix

In a back-and-forth affair that featured some unbelievably athletic plays and some high-level shot-making coming from unexpected sources, the Vols set themselves up as the early favorite in the SEC and made a statement to the rest of the college basketball world that they are for real. 

There is a lot to take away from this game. 

Let’s dive into it:

1. THE WORLD HAS BEEN INTRODUCED TO ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD

Schofield had a career-high 30 points on Sunday afternoon. He scored 25 of those 30 points in the second, including the final 11 points of the game for the Vols. His three with 22.1 seconds left was the game-winner. Those points were made all the more important because Tennessee was without Lamonte Turner for this game and lost Grant Williams with three minutes left to his fourth foul of the game.

There is so much to like about the way that Schofield plays, and like Grant Williams, he is the guy that sets the tone for Tennessee. He’s an undersized wing that can defend up and down, he can make threes and there isn’t a possession that goes by where Schofield does anything other than play his tail off. Tennessee has proven themselves to be one of the best programs in the country at developing talent, but that’s something that is helped by the fact that the two best players on the roster — Schofield and Williams — also happen to be the two hardest workers.

The other thing that this performance does is shoot Schofield up NBA draft boards. Playing against Gonzaga means that there are going to be plenty of NBA scouts with their eyes on the game, and there should be little doubt that playing like this is going to garner Schofield — who was already a potential second round pick — more attention. He does all the things that we look for out of a role-playing wing in the NBA. He shoots it. He’s versatile defensively. He plays hard. He knows that, at his core, he’s a role player.

What else are you looking for?

Admiral Schofield (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

2. TENNESSEE CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

There is a clear-cut top tier in college basketball this season.

Duke is part of that group. Gonzaga, too. Michigan probably belongs in that conversation, as does Virginia. Kansas is in the mix. Nevada is in the mix. And, yes, Tennessee belongs there as well.

The reason for that is Tennessee just doesn’t have many holes. If they need to play big, they can put Kyle Alexander out there with Williams and Schofield and they have enough size to matchup with anyone. If they need to play small, they can put Lamonte Turner in the backcourt with Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden. If they want to go with a switchable lineup, they can play Yves Pons with Williams and Schofield. They have good guards. They can make threes. They have a guy in Williams that can score on the block and who Kansas head coach Bill Self said could end up being the best player that the Jayhawks face all season long.

That makes them a very, very dangerous basketball team.

3. BRANDON CLARKE IS GONZAGA’S BEST PLAYER

Rui Hachimura is the guy that gets all the plaudits, and it’s certainly deserved. He’s the leading scorer for the No. 1 team in the country. He is the guy that made the game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington. He’s a future lottery pick and a player that is an icon in his home country of Japan. He deserves all the recognition that he gets, and going for 21 points and eight boards on Sunday doesn’t change that fact.

That said, Clarke is the best player for the Zags for the simply fact that he is arguably the best defensive player in the country. He’s an unbelievable athlete and rim protector that can switch onto smaller defenders and jumps passing lanes. He’s going to be a first round pick in the NBA because of it.

He also averages 16.4 points and 8.2 boards. On Sunday, he led Gonzaga with 21 points and nine boards. He had what may go down as the best block of the college basketball season:

The thing that makes Gonzaga so good is that picking their best player is like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream. They’re all good. Hachimura is an all-american. Zach Norvell Jr. makes more big shots that anyone in college basketball and will, by the end of the season, become known for what he does in the second half of games. Corey Kispert is an elite role player. Josh Perkins will finish among the league leaders in assists.

But for my money, Clarke is their best player.

4. SUNDAY SHOWED US WHY JOSH PERKINS IS A CONCERN FOR THE ZAGS

The irony, however, is that Clarke isn’t the most important player on Gonzaga.

That title belongs to Josh Perkins, the only point guard currently on Gonzaga’s roster and a guy that just so happens to have a reputation for being consistently inconsistent.

We saw the full Josh Perkins Experience on Sunday. He had a number of flashy assists, finishing with nine in total against just a single turnovers, but he was 0-for-6 from the floor, scoreless and nowhere to be found down the stretch when Gonzaga needed some big buckets.

Guy, Jerome lead No. 4 Virginia over VCU, 57-49

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome combined to score 29 points as No. 4 Virginia held off Virginia Commonwealth 57-49 on Sunday.

Guy scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, while Jerome put up 11 of his 14 after the break.

Virginia (9-0) missed 13 of its first 15 shots after the break and VCU (7-3), coming off its road upset of Texas on Wednesday, led 37-36 midway through the second half.

Isaac Vann led the Rams with 10 points as VCU played its closest contest with Virginia since its 59-56 victory in 2013. Since then, the Cavaliers have won three straight.

Kihei Clark played with a cast on his injured left wrist but still started the game and logged 33 minutes, scoring nine points and dishing out four assists for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Coming off its upset of Texas and former coach Shaka Smart, VCU impressed again, sticking close to Virginia for much of the afternoon. While the Rams lost for the third straight time to the Cavaliers, this was the closest of those matchups. … Virginia struggled offensively, but its defense and two stars lifted it to what should be considered a quality win on its NCAA resume come March.

No. 1 goes down as No. 7 Tennessee, Schofield upset Gonzaga

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PHOENIX — Admiral Schofield hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left and scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half, helping No. 7 Tennessee knock off top-ranked Gonzaga 76-73 in the Colangelo Classic on Sunday.

Tennessee (7-1) jumped on Gonzaga early and fought back from a nine-point, second-half deficit.

Reigning SEC player of the year Grant Williams fouled out with 2:30 left, but the Vols went up two when Schofield banked in a 3-pointer with 80 seconds left.

After Rui Hachimura tied it with two free throws, Schofield hit a long 3 and Tennessee held on for its first win over a No. 1 team — fifth overall — since beating Kansas in 2010.

Gonzaga (9-1) had two shots at a tying 3-pointer, but Zach Norvell Jr. and Hachimura missed.

Hachimura and Brandon Clarke had 21 points each for the Bulldogs.

The Zags passed every previous test despite playing without injured forward Kevin Tillie.

Gonzaga blew out Texas A&M in Spokane, then knocked off Illinois, Arizona and then-top-ranked Duke to win the Maui Invitational. The Bulldogs beat Washington in their last game on Hachimura’s last-second jumper.

Tennessee, a popular preseason Final Four pick, took No. 2 Kansas to overtime before losing and beat Louisville by 11 in its closest win of the season.

Hachimura had no trouble against one of the nation’s best defensive frontcourts, effectively using his mid-range jumper to score 14 points by halftime.

Williams had 12 and the Vols led 34-33 after Jordan Bowden hit a last-second jumper.

Gonzaga built a quick seven-point lead in the second half, let Tennessee claw back, then went up 58-50 on a pair of Norvell 3-pointers as he traded baskets and trash talk with Schofield.

Schofield brought the Vols back, tying it at 68l with a 3-pointer from the wing with just over three minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee looked every bit a Final Four contender, knocking off the nation’s No. 1 team with its best player on the bench the final 2:30.

Gonzaga had passed all its previous tests, but not having Tillie hurt the Zags against the talented Vols.