The Virginia Cavaliers are an acquired taste. Not everyone can appreciate the subtleties of a well executed down-screen that results in an open three. Similarly, it takes a keen eye to notice a defender who perfectly rotates to cover a post when his teammate executes a double team.
While to some these things may go unnoticed, the results on the scoreboard do not. The 2013-2014 version of the Cavaliers went 30-7, won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles, and advanced to the Sweet 16. Head coach Tony Bennett and this year’s version of the Cavaliers are 11-0, all but one of those wins being double figure margins, and will once again be a nuisance to ACC opponents with their frustrating brand of defense and their measured approach to offense.
Bennett was practically born in a gym. He is the son of Dick Bennett, who had 489 wins during a 30-year career that spanned all levels of college basketball coaching from NAIA to NCAA Division I. The elder Bennett took the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four in 2000. The younger Bennett borrows from his father’s playbook and employs the two systems that his father pioneered: the Pack Line defense and the Blocker-Mover Offense. His father may have been the innovator, but Bennett and the Cavaliers are taking the systems to new heights.
Virginia is second in the country in scoring defense, allowing a meager 47.9 points per game, a figure second only to the Kentucky Wildcats. Last season, Virginia led the nation in scoring defense in surrendering only 55.7 points per game. Unlike Kentucky, Virginia does not limit its opponents with a towering frontcourt laden with NBA prospects. Instead, the Cavs use the Pack Line defense that the Bennetts have made famous.
The Pack Line has a few simple principles that differentiate it from traditional man-to-man defense. The priority of the defense is to stop all dribble penetration. And in modern basketball, stopping drives is a formula for success.
The Cavaliers are second in the NCAA in field-goal percentage defense (31%), and allow only eight assists per game. There is no drive-and-kick to be found when playing Virginia. They have held nine opponents under 60 points and two under 30 points. In their last outing, they held Harvard to an NCAA record low one field goal in the first half. One. And this is a Harvard team coming off of three straight NCAA tournament appearances and who began the season with a #25 ranking. It was a quality team that Virginia absolutely and emphatically shut down.
Many teams expend a tremendous amount of energy denying passes on the perimeter. Some teams are great at it, and have the athletes to disrupt offensive rhythm. But it is very difficult to deny, help on penetration and then recover to your man. Bennett eliminates one of those variables, and as a result the other two improve.
Virginia is content to allow teams to pass the ball around the perimeter. They do not deny passes. Instead, players away from the ball drop into a “ball-you-man” stance even when one pass away. When their man does not have the ball, they drop below the “Pack Line” which is a imaginary arch two to three feet inside the three point line.
The player guarding the ball applies immense ball pressure knowing full well he has four teammates crowded within the “Pack Line” ready to help. And the results are damaging to even the best offenses. Teams pass unproductively around the perimeter and opposing guards, who have long been conditioned to play off the dribble, cannot find a crevice to penetrate. Often, teams are left with nothing but a contested shot late in the shot clock.
Possessions like this are commonplace. In their last outing, when Virginia so comprehensively suffocated a good Harvard team, the Crimson managed only eight field goals in the in the 76-27 defeat, including that single shot in the first half. It was the second time this season the Cavs have held an opponent below 30 points, after also holding Rutgers to a mere 26.
There are two instances in which a Virginia player will come outside the “Pack Line” when their man does not have the ball. Firstly, to deny their man a catch when the ball handler has picked up his dribble. Or secondly, to hedge ball screens and contain dribble penetration.
Here we see Harvard make several attempts to penetrate the defense, and Virginia simply will not allow it. All screens are hedged. All shots are contested.
Two other differences in the Pack Line model are the cutting off of the baseline drive and the post-double.
Many man-to-man coaches will depend on help side rotation to cut off baseline drives. Virginia never wants to go into such rotation. Instead, the on-the-ball defender cuts off the baseline drive and forces drives to the middle, where their teammates await inside the Pack Line.
No rotation means more contested shots, and since the Virginia defense hardly ever loses shape, block-outs when those contested shots are taken are clear and easy to make. The result: an relatively un-athletic Virginia squad is third in the nation in Rebound Margin per game.
Inside, Virginia post defenders will play over the top to discourage post entry, but on the flight of the entry pass they slide behind and remain between the ball and the basket. Bennett believes the post is a danger zone and wants the ball out of there immediately.
To achieve this, Virginia uses a big-to-big automatic double. The rest of the Cavaliers rotate, and when the pass is made out of the double team, the Pack Line is set again. But often the post-double can result in a turnover.
The goals of the Pack Line are clear. Nothing is more damaging to a defense than dribble penetration and the Pack Line limits it. Helping early shortens the distance of the close outs, and results in longer, contested shots late in the shot clock. Cutting off baseline drives keeps the defense in its shape, and results in clearly defined blockouts which lead to more rebounds. Doubling the post gets the ball out of a danger zone. Virginia follows this recipe with ruthless exactness.
Offensively, Virginia is no less systematic in their approach. The Cavaliers play within well defined roles in the Blocker-Mover system.
In the system, one is either a “Mover” or a “Blocker” and the roles are rigid. The Movers are the three guards. They take most of the shots and do the bulk of the ball-handling. The Movers pass and cut, and maintain “top-side-side” alignment.
The Blockers are screeners. It is their job to free the movers for open shots. They can shoot, and do so usually after becoming a “second-cutter” after a screen. They also have certain screening rules based on alignment.
Most often, Bennett uses the “lane-lane” alignment of the Blocker Mover system. This means that the blocker sets screens along the free throw lane. He may set screens outside and higher, so long as he stays on the lane line extended. The Blockers do not change sides of the floor during a possession. (In this figure, blockers are circled in black and movers in red. You clearly see the “lane-lane” set up.)
The rules may seem restrictive, but they present a myriad of options. The Cavaliers play within this framework and get flare screens, pin-downs and baseline screens all without calling a play in the traditional sense.
Virginia is terrific at reading their defenders and making the right cuts. If a defender trails on a screen, they curl. If the defender goes to the ballside of a screen, they out cut to the perimeter. If a screener’s man hedges too long, they find open screeners for easy baskets. All five players stay in motion as the movers maintain top-side-side alignment and the blockers screen for them. This is a throwback style that is difficult to guard.
Here we see junior guard Malcolm Brogdon make a beautiful out cut after his man dips ball side of a pin down. The shot comes after the Cavaliers demonstrate a couple of lost arts: the relocation of a guard after a post entry, and the rescreen after a flare screen that was not timed with the arrival of the ball. Nothing flashy. Just effective.
Here is another great example of Virginia in the lane-lane alignment of the Blocker-Mover offense. There are flare screens and rescreens into pin downs. There is movement among the movers in the trademark side-top-side fashion. The ball is taken via the dribble to the screening action. There is a post entry and then a relocation when Harvard digs into the post. It is read perfectly and the Cavs connect from outside.
It is not always the movers who score. As the roles are clearly defined, screeners become excellent at screening. The more effective the screen, the more a defender has to hedge, thus leaving the blocker open for good looks. Here, junior guard Justin Anderson curls tightly around the pin screen from the blocker along the baseline. This causes the screener’s man to help and Anderson finds the open blocker for an easy score.
Bennett has not only perfected his teaching of the two systems; he has assembled a team fit to run them. That team is led by movers Brogdon and Anderson.
Due to the Virginia “share the ball” culture, neither have eye-popping numbers, but the offense evolves in a way that gets them shots. Brogdon is the craftiest mover, reading screens well and averaging 13.1 points per game. Anderson is perhaps the Cavs’ most top-end talent, whose NBA body and shooting touch are helping him average 15.1 points per game. Anderson and Brogdon have stepped in nicely after the loss Joe Harris (1698 career points) to graduation.
London Perrantes runs the show from the point. He had an absurd 4.47-to-1 assist to turnover ratio in 2013-2014. Perrantes is a steady guard who distributes to his fellow movers and knocks down free throws (86%).
Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill fill the role of blockers. Tobey has shown inside and outside ability, and he went for 15 points and 10 rebounds against Harvard. Gill is a versatile big man who has shown the ability to score (12.7 points per game in 2013-2014). But both Tobey and Gill accept their roles as screeners first.
Unlike the relatively uniform NBA, there are a wide range of styles in college basketball. Bennett has a team that has accepted the systems passed down by his father. It is not a glamorous system and not many guys come out of the prep ranks dreaming of spending their college years as battering rams for their teammates. Virginia’s players head to Charlottesville knowing that individual stardom will be secondary to team success.
It is doubtful that Virginia has the star power or the fire power to defeat the likes of Duke or Kentucky. They do, however, present a unique challenge along the way. The Cavaliers can take Duke, Kentucky or any other team, grind them to a halt and make them earn victory in the trenches. Any victory over Bennett’s Cavaliers will be earned the hard way.