Fixing the Packline: Part One

Virginia's packline is one of the nation's best defenses. - Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier's defense has come apart since Big East play began. We approached other packline defense aficionados to see how their teams were running the same defensive scheme.

As been discussed, tweeted about, discussed some more, beaten to death, and then discussed some more, Xavier has a little bit of a defensive issue right now. Namely, allowing a whole bunch of points and getting torched from behind the arc. In the first part of our series, we explained exactly how Xavier was suddenly so deficient defensively. That article elicited a lot of response, so we went digging to see how other teams were addressing the same problem.

We'll start with the Virginia Cavaliers. Currently 6th overall in the KenPom rankings and riding a defensive efficiency of 89.5 (fourth in the nation), the Cavaliers are clearly doing something right. Tony Bennett, the son of the inventor of the packline, coaches Virginia and currently has the Wahoos holding teams to 32.3% from deep. Brian Schwartz of Streaking the Lawn answered our questions.

Banners: Xavier gets killed on rotations off of high ball screens in part because the screener's man hedges way out in attempt to force the ballhandler towards the half line. How does your team handle high ball screens?

Streaking the Lawn: That high hedge is a tricky move, but one that's instrumental in how UVA runs its defense. After hedging all the way toward half court (we do it too), two things seem to have to happen perfectly: 1) The defender must recover quickly, with his hands high, while the ball-handler is out of passing position. 2) The rest of the defense rotates to help, then recovers as the hedger finds his man. It comes down to timing and quickness - Akil Mitchell is a great defender for us, and seems to almost teleport from midcourt to under the hoop. Virginia very rarely if ever gets exploited on this move, and I'm amazed every time.

Banners: Xavier forces turnovers on only 16.1% of opponent's possessions, which is dreadful. Both of the other teams prominently running the packline sit over 19%. Has your team extended the line in order to get in passing lanes more effectively?

Streaking: UVA forces TOs on 20% of possessions during ACC play, but it's not really about getting in passing lanes. That imaginary line, ~1 foot inside the 3-point arc, holds true. I like to think that the Packline frustrates opponents into making mistakes. We'll get steals when we double the post, and a panicked big man throws the ball into the defender's hands. Or an opponent will dribble into the paint, find himself surrounded, and travel. Or we'll get the ball back from our favorite basketball play of all-time, the shot clock violation.

The Packline definitely isn't predicated on forcing turnovers (and looking at ours and Arizona's past TO rates confirms that neither has ever been that great at it). But, while opponents are free to pass around the perimeter all they want, ample pressure be available to apply once they have the ball inside.

Banners: Because of how Xavier helps on penetration, we give up a lot of fairly uncontested corner threes. Where does your defense have gaps, and what causes them?

Streaking: Yeah, this is a gap (not necessarily corner threes). We know the Packline is susceptible to three-point shooting. We've been pretty decent keeping teams off the three-point line this year, and I like to think it's because the team recognizes this as a potential weakness and works hard on closing out quickly to counter it. Oftentimes, in the middle of possessions, I'll notice coaches screaming to players, holding their hands high. Teams still launch a good number of 3s against us, but they haven't been all too successful, and I think it's just about recognizing this as an area requiring special emphasis.

We've also struggled in the past facing quick opposing guards. Against lowly Virginia Tech, PG Devin Wilson was a matchup issue. Our players are athletic and long, but not necessarily quick, so we can either get beat off the dribble, or by helping too much and leaving big men open inside. It's counter-intuitive (since stopping penetration is a packline goal), but those slashers who are just too quick to contain have hurt us).

Banners: When your defense is clicking, what makes it work? When it isn't, what causes that?

Streaking: Opposing teams just can't buy an open look, get frustrated, and start taking bad shots. It takes a pretty high level of intensity, that we have best applied in "bursts," like holding Georgia Tech to 1 point in the final 10 minutes, or going on a 25-0 run against ND. It almost seems like a vicious cycle develops, where we pick it up a level, the opponent forces worse and worse shots, and the defense continues to feed off that confidence.

One strength this season has been quieting opponent's star players. In 3 games, Jabari Parker, Lamar Patterson, and TJ Warren combined to go 7-34 for 22 points against us. Those volume shooters may be able to beat people 1-on-1, but I think they get a bit thrown off by the variety of defenders clogging up the space they're used to working in.

When UVA's defense is working well, it's doing the following:

1) Allowing no good shots on the interior (keeping 2PT% very low), while closing out quick enough to chase opponents off the 3 point line at a decent enough rate.
2) Cleaning up the defensive boards, which should come naturally for Packline teams. (Historically, we haven't made much of an effort rebounding our own misses, in favor of getting back on D, but we've evolved on that a bit this season).
3) Forcing the opponents into positions where they could potentially turn the ball over to us - despite the inherently "non-pressure" aspect of the system, we've kept TO rates respectable.

Stat-wise, it seems the main issue that Xavier is having is the turnover part. We started slow on that aspect in the OOC, but have picked it up during conference play (and seen a corresponding increase of both TO rate and FT rate as well).

Takeaways:

Virginia is an incredible defensive team this year. It seems that they are closing down teams on the perimeter more quickly than Xavier is and they also benefit from Matt Stainbrook (God love him) not being the one trying to chase from the high hedge back into the paint. It's also worth noting that Virginia sets the packline just a foot inside the three point arc. The twelve inches farther back that Xavier plays are clearly causing some issues.

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