A breakdown of the pack line defense featuring the Virginia Cavaliers
Tony Bennett’s teams have been very strong defensively, despite a lack of athletic wings and dominant shotblockers in the majority of the past 5+ years. Bennett relies on the packline defense to compensate for his teams weaknesses, which is a man to man defense with a few specific principles. The defense will put heavy pressure on the ball when it is beyond the three point line but the help defense will sag below the three point line, taking away dribble penetration.
Since the gap in athleticism of the guards makes it difficult for the primary defenders to stay in front of the ball, the help defense has to work extra hard to discourage penetration. The primary defender will put heavy pressure on the ball to make it difficult on the ball handler, with the knowledge that their teammates are available to help if they get beat off the dribble. This forces the defense t0 leave the three point line open, allowing teams to shoot well from beyond the arc against Bennett coached teams historically (range of 33.1% to 36.3% in the 5 years prior to 2011-12).
You can see in the following frames how Virginia packs their defense below the three point line. This clogs the space below the arc and helps defend against dribble penetration.
This forces teams to pass the ball around the perimeter or get stuck in traffic when they try to dribble through the lane. The defense likes to put hard ball pressure on the ball handler to make it more difficult to pass or drive and they know they have help behind them if their man gets by them. This puts a ton of pressure on the help to slide over, cut the penetration off and recover to shooters.
The three point line will be open often times against this defense due to the emphasis on denying penetration. The defense has to concentrate on closing out strong but in the ACC, many teams have shooters that can bury these open looks, negating all the hard work the defense did to deny penetration. While the defense would much rather allow a three point shot than an open layup, teams have hurt Bennett coached teams in the past by shooting well from this spot on the floor.
When the packline defense is working it either forces the offense to pass the ball continously around the perimeter, with no lanes to drive, or provides help on penetration to cut off the lanes to the rim. In the following video, watch the packline offense work for Virginia as they pressure the ball to deny penetration, force Michigan to swing the ball around the three point line without any lanes to dribble through and help on the ball when a player does get below the three point line.
Now, let’s briefly discuss how to beat the packline defense. As we talked about above, the three point line is an area on the court where offenses can find open shots. Also, since the defense is often utilized to mask less athletic defenders on the perimeter, teams can find space to drive if they move the ball. One area that is often open is the baseline if the defense makes a mistake, as a principle of the packline defense is to deny the baseline. If a defender does not take away the baseline (as we see in the first clip below), the defense is not set up to be in position to help.
In the second clip, we see how guards can break down their defender off the dribble and find gaps in the defense. The guards of UVA (as is often the case of teams that utilize this defense) are a bit slow-footed and have trouble staying in front of dribble penetration, which can leave the defense exposed. When the help does not come in time, the ball handler can have an open lane to the rim.
When the packline defense is not working well, teams will be able to get to the rim easily without much resistance from the defense. It starts with a lack of ball pressure, allowing the ball handler to put some space between himself and his defender to break the defense down off the dribble. The help will be out of position, either due to the position of the ball or a mistake in rotation. The follwoing video shows a few breakdowns of the packline defense that UVA suffered against Michigan, which allowed penetration to the rim.
The packline is a fine defense to employ with below average guards, as it will allow teams to better defend when they get beat on penetration. However, a single mistake in positioning can give the offense an open lane to drive against the slower guards, which many teams in the ACC can take advantage of, as well as the openings around the three point line. Bennett has had his two worst season defensively in his two seasons at Virginia, as ACC teams are naturally built to take advantage of this defense’s weak points. Time will tell if this defense can work at Virginia but it has been in the bottom half of defensive efficiency in conference games in both years of the Bennett regime.