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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.

Texas A&M loses third underclassmen to pro ranks

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Texas A&M left us wanting more throughout the 2017-18 season, as a team with enough talent to win the SEC title lost 13 games and finished 9-9 in league play, somehow salvaging the memory of the year with a trip to the Sweet 16.

And after a third starter opted to sign with an agent this week, it appears as if the run the Aggies made will be the last, at least for the time being.

Tyler Davis, who led the Aggies in scoring (14.9 ppg) and was second in rebounding (8.9 rpg), will sign with an agent, he told The Undefeated. He’ll follow Robert Williams and D.J. Hogg as underclassmen leaving school, while seniors Duane Wilson and Tony Trocha-Morelos graduate. Williams is the only one of that group that is expected to be drafted on June 21st.

What that means is that Billy Kennedy’s window as an SEC contender has slammed shut.

Texas A&M only returns two of their top eight from what was quite possibly the most disappointing team in college basketball this side of Arizona. They currently have just nine scholarship players on the roster, including just three front court pieces. One, Josh Nebo, is a transfer from an NEC program, while the other two combined to play in 15 games last season.

This team is going to go as far as T.J. Starks, Admon Gilder and Savion Flagg carry them, and in an SEC that could quite possibly begin the year with five top 25 teams — four of which are in the NBC Sports top 15 — it’s hard to imagine that core doing much.

It’s unfortunate that the one team that Kennedy put together with a chance to make some noise never actually found a way to get going.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.