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Chasing the pack

Bennett explains famous defense

"Coach is really big on [defense]," Joe Harris said. "He stresses it a lot."

Give the freshman guard the understatement of the year award. To say Virginia coach Tony Bennett places importance on defense is like saying Donald Trump is fond of money.

Year two of the Bennett era commences tonight, and with it begins the second go-around of the head coach's bread and butter: the pack-line defense. It is the defense that helped Bennett collect nine national coach of the year awards during his first season at Washington State, the defense that made Virginia the third best scoring defense in the ACC last season and the defense that held national champion Duke to its lowest single game point total on the season.

Crafted by his father, Dick Bennett, when Tony starred for Wisconsin-Green Bay in the early 1990s, the pack-line has made its way into numerous playbooks across the country. Tom Izzo uses a variation of it at Michigan State, Wake Forest used it during its three years with Dino Gaudio and Butler used it in April's national title game. Last year, its inventor's heir apparent brought it to John Paul Jones Arena.

The pack-line's objective is simple - make the other team work to earn a shot. While one defender pressures the ball-handler on the perimeter, the four other players drop back and clog the lane to prevent dribble-penetration toward the basket. The on-ball defender constantly pressures the ball-handler - if he gets beat, his teammates are there to help stop the ball.

"It's packed in so your guys can't have alleys to the basket," Bennett said. "When it's played right, it's a defense where players have to hit contested outside shots. They don't get a lot of penetration into the lane or into the pack area."

The "pack area" is enclosed by an imaginary line drawn about four feet inside the three-point arc. The four helping defenders essentially form a wall behind the ball by setting themselves within this area to deny passing lanes and dribble penetration. As a result, teams tend to swing the ball around the perimeter, trying to find either an open shot or a seam into the defense. The four defenders in the pack area are responsible for playing help defense and closing out players to prevent open jump shots. They also must shut down the baseline and force the opposition to feed the ball over the top of defenders to infiltrate the low post.

The pack-line cannot function, however, unless everyone gets back on defense before the other team can make a move to the basket. Defenders must hustle back down court immediately following a change of possession to set the defense.

"Transition defense is first and foremost," Bennett said.

Still, he acknowledges there is still a long way to go before they reach the level of mastery he envisions. The Cavaliers ranked third in scoring defense last season, for example, but finished 12th in three-point field goal percentage defense, indicating that defenders were not closing out shooters on the perimeter fast enough.

Bennett also noted that his team is not quite at the level it reached by the end of last year. That should come as no surprise for a squad with seven freshmen hoping to see early playing time. Although they have not mastered the defense by any means, Bennett said they are making strides. They are still adjusting to the pace of play in college basketball, though.

"It's just getting everyone together to be on the same page as a defensive way," senior forward Mike Scott said. "Us returners, we know what coach Bennett wants - he stresses the pack defense. Now we're just teaching the younger guys so they can get on our level."

Only one thing will really mold them into a truly formidable defense: time.

"Through repetition and maturity you get to where you're not thinking as much," Bennett said. "You're becoming more of a defense that anticipates"

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