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Coaches Corner: The Mystery of The UVA Pack Line Defense

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What is this pack line defense thing and how can the Eagles crack the code?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers come to Conte this afternoon boasting some pretty impressive numbers.

  • 16-0 overall and 4-0 in the ACC, one of only two undefeated teams left in America along with Kentucky.
  • Gaudy national statistics of #1 in opponents points per game, #4 in scoring margin, #2 in field goal percentage defense, #3 in rebound percentage, #4 in defensive efficiency rating and #8 in offensive efficiency rating, among other categories the Hoos sit in the top 20.
The cornerstone of that success and the calling card for Virginia is their famed pack line defense.  Now nothing is new in coaching.  Philosophies just evolve over time and such is the case for what now is known as the pack line.

Dick Bennett, father of current Cavalier head coach Tony Bennett and former head coach at Wisconsin Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State, developed the pack line defense as an off shoot of a standard man to man defense.  What he did that was unique though was to combine the principals of a sagging man to man defense, with that of a pressure man to man defense.

The philosophy is a simply one, do not lose by giving up layups and second shot attempts.  When Dick had semi inferior athletes at his stops, it was done out of necessity, Tony Bennett can do it with far better athletes than his Dad generally had at his disposal.

Virginia will look to maintain ball pressure on the one player with the ball, while keeping the other four defenders well inside the three point line (the pack zone) with the constant goal of keeping the ball out of lane and out of the post.

This discourages the player with the ball from both shooting due to the ball pressure and to driving, because of all the help that is in the paint.  The post is either full fronted with the ball at the top of the key or 3/4 with it on a wing, discouraging entry from those areas.

So, that then would mean three point shots are open, and to some extent that would be true.  What Virginia banks on is two fold. First, that ball pressure will result in lob or floating passes to those open shooters.  This will allow time for the defense to rotate and re-establish pressure on that shooter.  Secondly, that even if you do get those shots, you won't make them.

The thing that most people ignore about the pack line is that forcing contested three point shots simply isn't enough.  You have to close out the possession with a defensive rebound.  As you can see above, Virginia does this very well, to the tune of fifth in the country in defensive rebound percentage (BC is 105).

Does Virginia force you to take the shots they want you to take?  Absolutely.  The Cavaliers rank 341 out of 351 when it comes to a percentage of total points they allow from beyond the three.  So they want you to take threes and are willing to give them up.

So how does BC deal with this?  It's pretty simple (ha, ha, ha!).  Think about playing the pack line as if you were playing against a zone (oops..BC hasn't been very good at that have they?).

First..transition baskets.  The Eagles have to be willing to run to beat that defense back down the floor before it gets locked in.  This means makes and misses as well as turnovers.

Secondly, force the aforementioned turnovers.  The game becomes a lot easier when you get live ball turnovers and can attack with a numbers advantage.

Third, hit the offensive boards.  This piece is harder than the others.  Virginia simply has a numbers advantage inside, with all the bodies starting in the paint...and oh, those bodies are really good.

Fourth, be willing to dribble penetrate.  Wait a second, you said that wasn't there? True, but as much as dribble penetration to score, looking to further collapse that defense and provide more crisp passes to perimeter shooters, taking away the Hoos defensive recovery time will be very important.

Fifth and finally, make the perimeter shots when you get them. Threes will be open at times and getting hot from the outside will be huge.

Oh, by the way, BC is 307th in the country in three point shooting percentage.

Never mind.

There are some good videos on Youtube on the pack line and a good coaching article on the Coaches Clipboard web site for those of you interested in learning more.

Go Eagles!