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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.

No. 23 Furman tops Charleston Southern 77-69, stays unbeaten

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — No. 23 Furman took another step in its remarkable early-season journey, one coach Bob Richey expects will benefit his team the rest of the way.

The perfect Paladins (11-0) used a late run to pull away from Charleston Southern for a 77-69 victory Tuesday night in their first-ever home game as a Top 25 team.

Richey felt the jitters of his young team before the game, the desire to show the home crowd their rise was legitimate.

“The fear of if we lose, does all this go away,” Richey said. “And I think that’s normal for a young player — ‘Man, we want to keep this going.'”

Noah Gurley scored 17 points, and Alex Hunter and Andrew Brown had 16 points apiece to lead Furman in a game where leading scorer Jordan Lyons had zero points.

“We’ve got to continue to keep our pulse on these players,” Richey said. “We’ve got to continue to help them out.”

So far, so good.

The Paladins have been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises with their school-record run to start the season — a stretch that included defeating defending national champs Villanova and a second Final Four team from last year in Loyola-Chicago.

It took a late charge to break away from the Buccaneers (4-5).

Charleston Southern trailed 54-52 on Dontrell Shuler’s layup with less than 10 minutes left. After that, the Paladins went on a 14-4 run. Tre Clark had four points during the surge and when Gurley nailed a 3-pointer with 5:51 to go, Furman was up 68-56.

Charleston Southern could not respond and college basketball’s feel-good story of the season remained on track.

Lyons, averaging 20.2 points a game, missed all seven of his shots.

Matt Rafferty had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Furman.

“We’ve got to stay even-keeled,” Hunter said. “That’s something we’ve been practicing every day.”

Deontaye Buskey and Duncan LeXander had 13 points each for Charleston Southern.

Buccaneers coach Barclay Radebaugh said his team made too many mistakes to hang in at the end.

“You can’t do that against a team like Furman,” he said.

Furman, which joined the AP Top 25 last week for the first time in school history, had to wait another week — and make it through road wins at Elon and South Carolina Upstate — before it could celebrate its achievement on its home court. And it looked like the Paladins would have plenty to cheer about after they used a 17-8 run midway through the opening period to build a 26-18 lead.

But Furman went cold after that, missing seven straight shots as the Buccaneers of the Big South Conference tightened things up.

BIG PICTURE

Charleston Southern: The Buccaneers are nearing the end of a brutal opening stretch with seven of their first 11 games on the road. Those have included losses at Florida, Middle Tennessee and Marquette. Charleston Southern’s run ends with games at North Florida and Clemson in the next week. Radebaugh hopes the time away from home toughens the Bucs for Big South play.

Furman: The Paladins looked edgy in their first home appearance as a ranked team. They looked ready to take charge with a 51-42 lead before helping Charleston Southern’s comeback with four straight turnovers. Furman probably won’t win many games where Lyons struggles as he did against the Bucs.

STREAKING PALADINS

Furman is off to its most consecutive wins since winning 11 in a row in 1979. That’s back when the Paladins were one of the Palmetto State’s most successful teams, going to six NCAA Tournaments between 1971 and 1980. Furman has not played in the tournament since then.

RICHEY’S START

Richey was grateful to Radebaugh, who hired Richey as a 23-year-old and gradually gave him control of the Bucs’ offense. “Without Barclay, I wouldn’t be here today,” Richey said.

UP NEXT

Charleston Southern is at North Florida on Saturday.

Furman finishes a two-game homestand by hosting UNC Wilmington on Saturday.

Penn ends No. 17 Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak with 78-75 victory

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Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak is over.

The 17th-ranked Wildcats fell to Penn, 78-75, at the Palestra on Tuesday to see its undefeated run among its Philadelphia counterparts come to an end after six years.

It’s also an end to the six-game winning streak coach Jay Wright’s team has enjoyed since losing back-to-back games to Michigan and Furman last month.

Issues persisted on the defensive end for the Wildcats as they fell on a night they shot 50 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. The Quakers bested that by converting 51.1 percent of their shots overall and 43.8 percent of their 16 attempts from distance.

Villanova had put some distance between itself and the shellacking it took courtesy of Michigan and the OT lost to Furman, but it continues to be clear that while still a top-25 caliber team, Wright’s squad this year looks to be well short of the teams that celebrated national championships in 2016 and 2018. Eric Paschall was expected to step into the void from losing so many players to the NBA off last year’s title-winner, but he took just five shots against Penn and has been generally inconsistent all season. Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly can’t even got on the floor. That leaves Collin Gillespie and Phil Booth, who combined for 39 points Tuesday, carrying a bigger burden than would be ideal.

The Wildcats are likely ultimately going to be fine – they lost to a good team Tuesday – but unless they can get more from especially Paschall it’s hard to see them elevating themselves to a Final Four contender.

That’s the weight of expectation after two titles in three years.

We knew the Big East championship wasn’t going to be Villanova’s to simply waltz to, but the top-half of the league continues to look incredibly tightly grouped together without mich separation.

Penn, meanwhile, looks a real threat in the Ivy, as was evident in the Quakers’ win over Miami last week. The win over Villanova only solidifies their status.

AJ Brodeur and Antonio Woods both scored 16 points against the ‘Cats as Penn led by as many as 12 points on the night, but still had to survive a Booth attempt from 3 at the buzzer to finally end Villanova’s supremacy over Big 5 hoops.

Iowa State could get Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young back this weekend

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It’s been sort of a bizarre start to the season for Iowa State. For starters, the Cyclones enter the season not coming off an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2011 after a 14-18 campaign last season snapped a program-record six-straight tourney streak. Coach Steve Prohm then suspended two players, including preseason all-Big 12 honorable mention center Cameron Lard, for the month of November for rules violations. The Cyclones also lost starting big man Solomon Young to a groin injury and then star guard Lindell Wigginton to a sprained foot.

Despite all that, Iowa State started the season 7-1 (including two wins at the Maui Invitational) before a loss at rival Iowa last week.

Now with an 8-2 record and having not only survived November but largely thrived with a reduced roster, the Cyclones are nearing full strength.

Wigginton, who averaged 17 points and shot 40 percent from 3 as a freshman, and Young, a two-year starter, could return as soon as Saturday and almost assuredly before the Cyclones’ Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State on Jan. 2.

“It’s where we thought it would be the whole time,” Prohm said of the duo’s timeline Monday, according to the Ames Tribune. “When we do halfcourt live segments Wednesday, if everything stays status quo the way it is right now, they’ll be able to go in the halfcourt.

“Not up and down, but they’ll go live contact in the halfcourt, and then evaluate them from there. Whether they suit up or not on Saturday, I couldn’t give you an answer on that right now.”

Prohm said both players could be in uniform against Drake on Saturday, but would not necessarily be available for big minutes, if at all. Wigginton, who went through the NBA pre-draft process last spring before announcing his return the day of the NCAA deadline, is expected to nearly immediately return to a major role.

Young, though, will be an interesting case. The Cyclones’ frontcourt is a crowded one with Prohm seemingly committed to playing four guards extensively and current starter Michael Jacobson, a Nebraska transfer, averaging a surprising 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 62.4 percent from the floor. With Jacobson, Lard and Young all soon available, Prohm will have a juggling act for minutes or reconfigure his lineup to play big, with the former seeming more likely than the latter.

Mark Few: NCAA prez Mark Emmert ‘needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions’

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Count Mark Few as one looking for the NCAA to shorten its timeline when it comes to potential discipline for schools ensnared by the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.

The Gonzaga coach is also calling out NCAA president Mark Emmert by name in his plea to speed things along and make teams who may have violated NCAA rules accountable.

“I’m disappointed. I don’t think this is something the NCAA needs to take their time on,” Few said, according to Yahoo Sports. “There’s teams out here who are competing for Final Fours and national championships and they don’t need to stall this thing out.

“They need to make decisions and roll with it. I think that’s on Emmert. Emmert needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions.”

Emmert said last week that schools who were implicated by the FBI’s investigation, including by information that was made public in October’s court proceedings that involved three guilty verdicts, would not face potential punishment until after this season with the NCAA investigation extending beyond the Final Four.

New NCAA rules allow it to use testimony and evidence presented in those trials, but how the NCAA will apply those rules – will it simply accept anything mentioned under oath? – remains unclear. The NCAA, though, has committed to handle things methodically, as it so often does to the frustration of many a coach. It’s not exactly surprising, though, that the NCAA is in no hurry to drop sanctions on prominent schools – programs like Kansas, Auburn, Creighton, LSU, Louisville and Miami – in the middle of a season. Such a move would dominate discussion of the sport and upend seasons in an unprecedented manner. Intraseason discipline, especially something like a postseason ban, against some of the country’s top programs would be almost guaranteed to invite ugly legal challenges.

It’s not exactly a courageous rationale, but it is pragmatic. It also is the least likely to affect the bottom line, which is usually the best spot to place your bet when trying to determine the NCAA’s course of action.

Providence guard to miss at least a month with foot injury

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Rough news for Providence on Tuesday morning, as the school announced that freshman guard A.J. Reeves will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an unspecified foot injury.

Reeves, a native of Roxbury, Ma., has averaged 14.2 points this season while shooting 45 percent from three. He’s been the best freshman in the Big East and one of the best weapons for a talented Friar team that has yet to truly figure themselves out.

“It’s unfortunate that A.J. has to go through this as he has been having a very productive start to his college career,” head coach Ed Cooley said. “However, he is a great person and will use this time to get better and he will continue to support the team.”