Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Guest Post: @macarthur31 on the Pack Line Defense

I am delighted to present a guest post by @macarthur31 (he’s a mandatory follow on Twitter for NU hoops fans). He's also a contributor over at Sippin' On Purple with 'Love That Tempo Free,' a series of 'Cat hoops games recaps through the tempo free stats lens. I first encountered macarthur31 on the Rivals message boards, where I was impressed by his overall basketball knowledge, his affinity for advanced analytics, and his ability to handle differences of opinion with grace and civility (a trait in which I am lacking). We started communicating on Twitter, and his encouragement played a big role in my decision to start this blog. After the Indiana game we were discussing NU’s extremely impressive defensive performance, and he identified the scheme as likely being the Pack Line defense. I had described it a sort of a 2-3 matchup with strong man principles, but his explanation made more sense. I asked him to contribute a post about the Pack Line, and he nailed it. I hope you appreciate it as much as I do.


History of the Pack Line

Dick Bennett developed this when he was coaching at Washington State University after discovering that his preferred style of trapping, high pressure defense may have forced many turnovers but struggled against power-conference teams that had better skill and athleticism in the point guard position. So instead of extending his defenders outward, he committed to "packing" the team underneath the three point line. It's basically a man-to-man defense that sags to prevent dribble penetration. It also requires disciplined closeouts on shooters.


Why run the Pack Line?

Running the Pack Line can provide cover for teams that aren't as athletic and that might suffer in straight man-to-man. Dick Bennett himself would argue that the labels and hype are just there to sell DVDs; this is just good old-fashioned help defense. Those DVDs helped spread the teaching of this style across the country.


Geography of the Pack Line Defense



  • Why is called the "Pack Line"? It refers to a 17 foot semicircle just inside the three point line. The premise is if you're not defending on ball, then you should have a foot on the "Pack Line". 
  • There is also a "Heat Up Line" which is 35-40 feet from the basket. Once the ball crosses this line, that's when the defense turns up the pressure on the ball handler.


The 6 Pack Line Defense Principles (quoted from FastModelSports.com)
  1. Be committed to getting back. Defense starts in transition. NO EASY BASKETS.
  2. Pressure the ball.
  3. Off the ball defenders must always be in a defensive stance and be ready.
  4. Keep the ball out of the deep post/limit catches in the post.
  5. Help early on all penetration. Don't wait for the ball to get in the paint to help.
  6. Challenge all shots. "Three's don't kill you - Open three's do".

Indicators of Success


Defensive PPP, 2P% Defense, 3P% Defense, DReb%, TO%, FTRate.


The UVA Turnaround

The Virginia Cavaliers under Dave Leitao had the following conference kenpom defensive efficiency ratings (points allowed per 100 possessions):
2006: 105.0
2007: 102.0
2008: 108.8
2009: 105.5

Tony Bennett came over in 2010 and installed the Pack. The results have been impressive:
2010: 103.9
2011: 100.9
2012: 91.7 (!)
2013: 93.6 (!)
2014 (through 5 conference games): 87.1 (!!)

Even though one could argue the ACC has declined in recent years, it's still a front line conference with blueblood programs.


What About NU?

When you look at the 'Cats in conference this year, they sputtered in the first three games:
vs. Wisconsin: 131
@ Michigan: 121
@ Iowa: 127

However, in the past three games it has been radically different:
vs. Illinois: 74
vs. Michigan State: 100
@ Indiana: 73

What was the difference in those games? In the first three games, the 'Cats were unable to force those teams out of their comfort zone. Even though the Badgers and Wolverines weren't awesome from long distance, they had more than enough weapons to build crushing leads. Meanwhile, Iowa was just unstoppable from any distance. Pair that up with the 'Cats still mind-numbingly inept offense, and the Pack Line isn't going to be enough. I also wonder if the refs were still in non-con mode in terms of calling fouls; Iowa went to the line 33 times, while Michigan had 22 FTAs which provided them many more opportunities to score easy points. I doubt that the 'Cats got that much better at moving their feet in just three days.


Did the 'Cats run the Pack against Indiana?

I went back and rewatched the first half (a.k.a. #singledigitwatch) and saw that the 'Cats emulated much of this defense. I was very impressed with their ability to get back in transition, and they were constantly in help defense mode. There were times that Ferrell was able to penetrate inside, but he was met by Olah or the fast hands of Crawford that made it difficult for him to operate. And when Indiana did feed the ball inside effectively to Vonleh, he was met with the surprisingly effective post defense of Alex Olah (a.k.a. "The Great Wall of Romania.") NU also challenged the majority of long distance shots, with the exception of a Vonleh 3Pt, which made sense as I wouldn't expect Alex Olah to go too far out on him. As Indiana missed outside jumpers, it committed harder to driving, which led to turnovers and or difficult makes. By the end of the half, it really appeared that Indiana was out of sorts on offense and lacking poise.


How to Crack the Pack?

The Run the Floor blog has a great primer on how to beat the Pack Line, so if you click on that link you can see how the Cavs Pack Line can be unlocked. However, to summarize: First, it’s about excellent point guard play: penetration and decision making. Second, it's about ball movement. As I re-watched the NU-Indiana game, the Hoosiers took a while to get into their sets as Ferrell dominated the ball and tried (with some success) to drive and kick. Finally, it's about misdirection: since there is aggressive overplay, there will be moments where the defense will be overloaded to one side. Offenses should capitalize on these moments to take advantage of open space.

There is no perfect defense, as there are always counters. However, this philosophy could be a very useful system for the 'Cats as long as the players commit fully to it. The last three games show promise. However, don't book those tickets for the postseason quite yet. The 'Cats still need to figure out a better offense to complement the defense and generate wins. Even with strong execution of the defense, they'll be lucky to win another game if they remain at 0.83 points per possession.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again for the opportunity to share, Matthew. Really dig your blog, and appreciated the invitation to add to the conversation.

    ReplyDelete