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Film room: Duke men's basketball to be tested by Virginia's pack line defense

Vernon Carey Jr.'s ability to pass out of the post will be key for Duke.
Vernon Carey Jr.'s ability to pass out of the post will be key for Duke.

Whenever these two teams face off, it is bound to be dramatic. 

Saturday’s clash between Duke and Virginia has all the makings of a late-season ACC classic, as both teams are looking to peak as the calendar turns to the greatest month in college basketball. The matchup represents an opportunity for the Blue Devils to return to their winning ways after losing their last two road games in equally shocking fashion.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Virginia basketball? If it is stifling defense, then you have been paying attention to Tony Bennett’s program since he arrived in Charlottesville, Va., in March 2009.

The Cavaliers have experienced a revitalization since Bennett arrived on campus, with the primary reasons being his vaunted pack line defense and outstanding player development. Despite some early struggles, this season has been more of the same for the defending national champions, as Virginia allows the least points per game in the country and has seen various developmental projects such as Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite take major strides. 

Bennett has perfected the pack line strategy that his father developed in the 1980s and 1990s, and he recruits cerebral and coachable players that are capable of applying this technique. What makes the Cavaliers' defense so special is that it ensures that dribble penetration and backdoor cuts are extremely difficult, meaning that every opposing offense has to expend significant energy while going through each offensive set to find a serviceable look. Virginia gives up 52.7 points per outing on 37.2 percent shooting from the floor, and the Cavaliers outrebound their opponents by over three boards per game. 

While Virginia’s strategy can be designated under the broader term of man-to-man, a specific variation is evident. In traditional man defense, any defenders that are one pass away are pressuring their matchups and denying the pass. However, in the pack line technique, all four help defenders are playing the gaps, with the two perimeter defenders on the elbows and the two paint defenders on the blocks. This is described as sagging off wing offensive players, and it can only be beaten by elite marksmanship from the perimeter. When a ball handler picks up his dribble, the Cavaliers seek to force a steal by subsequently denying passes around the perimeter. The performances of sharpshooters Joey Baker, Alex O’Connell and Matthew Hurt will be a major factor in Duke’s chances of succeeding Saturday night. 

Virginia also defends high ball screens in a consistent and unique fashion. Against the pick-and-roll, the defender on the screener shows himself and prevents the ball handler from turning the corner. The principle of “helping the helper” is crucial here, as the screener would be wide open on the roll if those away from the ball did not compensate. After just a couple seconds, each defender is back on their man and Virginia has forced the opposition to run through another offensive set. Having a point guard capable of splitting the double team is crucial, and Blue Devil point guard Tre Jones clearly has that ability. 



In the post, the Cavaliers double on the catch, forcing a power forward or center to either put the ball on the floor or dish off to a cutter or spot-up shooter. This often creates turnovers and limits the opposition's presence inside. Freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. has proven to be effective as a passer out of the post thanks to his background playing on the wing in high school, so Duke has an avenue to exploit this pressure-oriented post strategy.



On the other end of the floor, the perception regarding Virginia has been vastly misconstrued by pundits and fans alike. Last season, with Deandre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers were fifth nationally in offensive efficiency en route to the program’s first national championship. 

Virginia plays at a tempo that can be described as slow at best, exemplified by the fact that the Cavaliers average the least offensive possessions in the country. However, by maximizing these limited possessions with ball movement and screen setting, Virginia has complemented its elite defense perfectly to churn out wins at an extremely high proficiency.

The staple of the Cavaliers’ offense is the 1-5 screen-and-roll between Clark and Diakite. With help defenders stretched to the wings and corners, the floor is spaced for Diakite to roll to the rack. Clark has excellent court vision and passing ability and has delivered countless times in the clutch. While Diakite is no Ralph Sampson, he is an outstanding finisher at the rim with the athleticism and skillset to play on the perimeter. 



The Blue Devils will need to connect from beyond the arc at a proficient rate Saturday night. Jones’ ability to drive and kick to shooters will be the key, and Carey, Hurt and senior forward Javin DeLaurier will need to avoid foul trouble to give head coach Mike Krzyzewski the flexibility to throw multiple interior defenders at Diakite. 

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