Take one look at Virginia’s basketball team as they come off the bus and you wouldn’t seem that impressed. The Cavaliers always seem to be made up of a group of skinny, unathletic guys that head coach Tony Bennett and his staff scooped from the bottom of the barrel after all the other elite programs had their turn.
Well, if you’ve watched Virginia play in the last six years, you would realize that those players can play on both ends and have bought into a defensive culture that has carried the former ACC powerhouse back to prominence.
Bennett has been lauded for his implementation of the “pack line” defense, a scheme that his father, Dick, utilized over a college coaching career of 30 years. The goal of the defense is to slow the opposing offense down in transition and use good help with quick close outs to create forced looks. The Cavaliers have perfected the strategy in recent years since Bennett first arrived in 2009 and have placed in the top two of defensive efficiency each of the last three seasons, according to KenPom.com.
In a half court set, the pack line aims to keep one defender on the ball and have the other four players inside or near the 3-point arc, depending on the shooting prowess of who they’re guarding. Bennett’s squad does not want to give up any easy baskets inside and uses tough man-to-man defense to force contested perimeter shots.
The defense starts off a missed shot or turnover, where Virginia will not look to apply pressure or stick with their man, but rather sprint down the floor and set up inside the 3-point arc. It limits transition opportunities to almost nothing, unless a team can get a guard to leak out or a steal in the back court.
In this clip from last year’s game in Cameron Indoor, Marvin Bagley III quickly grabs a rebound and looks toward a streaking Trevon Duval, but as Duval pushes it up the floor, he is met by three Cavaliers, forcing Duke into its half court set.
In crunch time later that day, Duval thought he could sneak one over the Virginia defense to Wendell Carter Jr., who was running behind the play, but there were plenty of blue shirts back to steal the ball in what would be Duke’s last opportunity before Ty Jerome iced it.
Another aspect of the pack line defense is the ability to help in the post, which stems from Virginia’s ability to double-team down low. Last year, the Cavaliers had to worry about Bagley and Carter down low, while this year they’ll be faced with a similar, but new challenge in Zion Williamson, who was a Crazie favorite at the game last year after committing to Duke just a week prior.
Virginia’s players make an effort to double in the post, knowing that their teammates are mostly inside the 3-point line, ready to help. Here Bagley gets the ball down low and Jack Salt comes immediately over to double. Carter is open for just a split second before two Cavalier defenders dive inside from the wing to take away the extra pass.
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The only reason that the double team works is because of the help coming from the weak side. Duval and Grayson Allen replace each other opposite the post up, but before the action starts on the other side. By the time that Salt comes over to help on Bagley, the two Blue Devil guards are stagnant, allowing the Virginia players to focus on the help.
Compare that to a possession earlier in the game, using the exact same formation around the court. This time it’s Allen who feeds Carter inside, but right as Salt comes over for the double, Duval and Gary Trent Jr. create just some simple off ball movement and replace each other, making the Cavaliers focus on them instead of the help, giving Bagley his easiest basket of the game.
An area where the Blue Devils could create some open looks would be on pick and pops from the top of the key, using either R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish or even Jack White as the screener. With so many defenders in the paint, it’s almost impossible to get an open roll to the basket, but a hard screen set to create a hedge from the screener’s defender would allow one of Duke’s capable shooters to get an open look from deep.
Here we see Carter setting a screen for Duval, and while Carter’s defender goes to keep Duval from getting past his defender, the future Bulls first round pick gets a good look, even though it doesn’t fall.
It will be harder than usual for the Blue Devils to create offense with the expected absence of Tre Jones, as well as a limit to their transition game, but timely movement off the ball and hopefully a more reliable three point shot than against Syracuse will help Duke score some points on undefeated Virginia.