As has 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.
The owners of college basketball's best defense, the Arizona Wildcats, also run the packline defense. The coach who installed it at Xavier, Sean Miller, has perfected it out in the desert. Very interestingly, teams take a microscopic 26.8% of their field goal attempts behind the arc against Arizona. (That's roughly ten percent lower than Xavier). When opponent's do get a three off, they make them only 30% of the time. To see what the Wildcats are getting right, we talked to Kevin Zimmerman of Arizona Desert Swarm.
Banners: Arizona does a heck of a job keeping opponents from getting three points attempts, which is a traditional weak point of the pack line defense; how are they doing that?
Desert Swarm: This seems like a cheap answer, but the Wildcats' size in the middle with 7' Kaleb Tarczewski and an athletic Aaron Gordon allows the guards to play tight defense on the perimeter without worrying too much if their men get by them. Additionally, Arizona's length allows them to recover on perimeter shooters well if the ball is swung over from the weak side. It also helps that the 1-4 positions, and sometimes even the center when Tarczewski isn't on the court, are able to switch pick-and-roll coverage if needed. That happens especially late in games -- not exactly a packline concept (I don't think) but is an interesting option.
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?
Desert Swarm: For the most part, Arizona does the same thing. The big men defending the screener hedge out on high ball screens and ideally, players on the weak side rotate toward the screener for a few seconds to prevent them from rolling until the screener's defender can recover. It's also important that the big man hedging actually forces the ball-handler further out or at least keeps their backs turned so they don't have a window to quickly pass out of what's essentially a brief double-team.
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?
Desert Swarm: For spurts and especially in the final eight minutes of games, Arizona will become more willing to deny the ball and jump into passing lanes, but they're certainly not over-aggressive the majority of the time. The Wildcats really do like to run shooters off the three-point line, defend the rim and force late jump shots. They're such a good rebounding team and so good at challenging shots, they don't really try to force turnovers as much as you'd think -- I think it's more than teams start turning it over because of frustration in trying to score.
Banners: When the on-ball defender needs help, where does it come from? How do the rest of the defenders rotate to cover?
Desert Swarm: Arizona is pretty good about weakside help coming, and even if not, there's generally a big in the paint to deter shots at the rim. As is the case for any rotation, the five defenders need to move on a string with one another as the ball moves about.
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?
Desert Swarm: It's hard to see Arizona having many gaps because its been very consistent all year long. If there's one thing that hurts Arizona, it's the ability for taller shooting guards to score on mid-range jumpers.
Banners: When your defense is clicking, what makes it work? When it isn't, what causes that?
Desert Swarm: Generally speaking, it's all about communication. The Wildcats love to force tough shots more than anything, and even attempts near the rim are difficult because of Arizona's size. Bringing help is the first step, but then reacting quickly and having the second rotation recover on shooters if the ball is passed out is the biggest key.
Same as with Virginia, Arizona is more willing to extend the defense to get in passing lanes and keep three point shooters uncomfortable. Where Xavier gambles by sitting deep in the pack, the other practitioners of the defense extend to become more effective. What seems like a cop out but should definitely be mentioned is that Arizona and Virginia are both more athletic at the four and five than Xavier is when it has either Philmore/Stainbrook or Farr/Stainbrook on the court.