Is the Pack Line Defense In Trouble?

Obviously, Virginia did not have the post-season run they hoped for.  The Cavaliers had a great season, lost only 3 times!  This season, Coach Bennett’s 9th at the helm, saw his defense climb to #1, according to KenPom.  For almost a decade, teams getting ready to pay the Wahoos knew what they were in for.  A grinding, slow-paced game with good shots few and far between.  Only once in that time period was Virginia’s defense ranked outside of the Top-25…and that was Coach Bennett’s 2nd season, not enough time to mold the program into a defensive dynamo just yet.

It didn’t take long…the next season they were Top-5, a quick blip at 25 the subsequent year and they haven’t left the Top-10 since.  That’s an impressive stretch.  And shows that it’s not a fluke.  It’s consistent.  And the constant has been the coach and his system.

Clearly there is something that Virginia is doing that is working well in the NCAA ranks.  The Pack Line defense has been a staple for Tony Bennett.  The proof of its success is in the numbers, as stated before.  For those that aren’t quite sure what we mean by Pack Line, here’s a quick illustration:

Pack Line 1

Easy to understand when it’s diagrammed.  The premise behind the style is simple; it keeps the defense in position to help, rebound, contest jump shots, deter penetration, etc.  Those are all great principles and extremely important when it comes to winning games.  As evidenced by the fact that Bennett is 189-86 as the head man in Charlottesville.  One of the other main ideas in the Pack Line is ball pressure, and Virginia has had some very good on-ball defenders in the past few years.  Sound concepts, easy for players to remember and interchange spaces on the court.

But here’s why the Pack Line may struggle to survive; 1) Freedom of Movement, 2) Continued Expansion of Tolerable Shooting Range.

Freedom of Movement

Prior to the 2015-16 NCAA season, there was a package of sweeping changes enacted in order to increase pace and scoring at the college level.  Here’s another article, written prior to the 2013-14 NCAA season that showed even more emphasis on freedom of movement for the offensive players.  In the latter, it states that the intended outcome of the rule changes would force defensive players to use their feet more and create a less physical game.

That is not good for a defense that is designed to impede dribble penetration.  Interestingly, in the 4 seasons since the 2013-14 season, Virginia’s dRTG surfaced above 90 only once and they finished ranked 7th overall.  That seems contradictory to what the rule change intended.  Heck, the Cavaliers had the top ranking this year, a full point ahead of #2 and nearly 6 points ahead of #3!

What makes us confident that the freedom of movement changes will be a part of the downfall for the Pack Line?  Easy, the players that are being recruited to play in college right now, are more familiar with the current rules than the players that were in college when the rules were changed.  This new generation grew up not being allowed to defend with their hands, or much physicality at all.  Since the collegiate ranks turnover by 25% (or more) every year, it doesn’t take long for an entirely new crop of players to populate the environment.  We know that Virginia doesn’t have many 1-and-done’s, nonetheless the culture of the incoming player is different and may not be conducive to this style.  At least not at the elite level of talent, where Virginia does like to recruit every now and then.

More importantly, the elite level of talent finds ways to evolve their games to the new rules.  Just like the Euro Step and Step Back are now mandatory finishes in the game, there will be a new combination of moves that are tailor made for the freedom of movement generation.

That’s just step 1, and it’s effectiveness relies a lot on the 2nd item we touched on…the Continued Expansion of Tolerable Shooting Range.  Since Steph Curry has taken over the ESPN highlights, we’ve seen younger players extend their range further and further from the 3PT line.  And it doesn’t matter what level, if there is a line on the court you will find kids shooting from well behind it.  Here’s why we are okay with that (and sad that we played before this era!!); it’s an uncontested shot (most of the time), if missed, it creates longer rebounds (physics says so) meaning a greater variability of offensive rebounding (our math terms may not be perfect), it’s now being practiced deliberately.

That last part is really important.  Middle school kids are no longer being yelled at for shooting from 3PT range.  Most of the coaches who were around in the pre-3PT era are no longer on the sidelines and with them went they way of conservative scoring.  It’s a simple concept that 3 is greater than 2, and that has finally made its way to the basketball court.  And as the NBA has embraced it, year after year the team record for made 3PT FGs is challenged with the Warriors and Rockets leading that charge, kids see more and more of it on TV.

It’s a perfect storm for the long ball.  It’s worth more points.  The “traditional” coaches are retiring.  Every kid is growing up with the ability to shoot from 3PT.  And they are being encouraged to do so regardless of their size.  The 3PT shot is nearly at full power.

Back to our original point about the Pack Line.  It was designed in an era when there was a greater emphasis on scoring near the rim.  It was born into a time when physical play was allowed.  It took advantage of the skill set (or lack of) of the players it would face and the rules of the game.  The best players in the game are shooting 3PTs, and it doesn’t matter what position they are.  Which means that the Pack Line has to close out further than ever before.  And the mandatory ball pressure, think of it as the Wolf to the Pack.  Now, with the Pack spread out, the lone wolf will get exposed as the driving lanes open up.  We saw what happened against UMBC, and that is just the first step towards extinction.

K.J. Maura, Devon Hall
This little guy got to the rim against the top defense?
UMBC Drive 2
This little guy did too?

As more and more teams employ an open-post offense and play 5 legitimate shooting threats, it will get tougher and tougher for the pack to defend their home.  And the offense isn’t going to revert.  It’s too much fun and is good for the brand of basketball.  You’ve been warned, Coach Bennett.  It’s time to get back to the drawing board.


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