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’.
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):
Hall is able to run out at Rodriguez, getting there in time to challenge the jumper and helping to force a miss:
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:
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:
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.
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.