The ‘Hoos have endured a rollercoaster of a start to their season which reached a low with a 98-75 drubbing at the hands of Gonzaga on December 26th, 2020. Glaring defensive inefficiencies had the Pre-Season #4 being doubted by many but world-class adjustments by Tony Bennett and staff have the ‘Hoos back as the team to beat in the ACC and a National Title Contender.
Most college basketball fan could tell you that UVA lives and dies on the defensive side of the ball with the Pack Line. A handful of college basketball fans could tell you that one key principle in that system is ball-screen defense. However, ANY college basketball fan could tell you from watching that UVA had been horrible at defending ball-screens through the Gonzaga game. So, what has changed? How has UVA been able to increase both offensive and defensive efficiency? Three key concepts: Tag, zone drop and switching.
Traditionally, UVA has used elite defensive players (Isaiah Wilkins, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt, Darion Atkins etc.) to hedge hard on ball screens, even if at half court, and recover into the pack line. The problem this year, however, is those players aren’t on the roster and UVA was giving up dribble-drives and opponents were living in the paint. Tony Bennett and his staff deployed a “Tag” system, or MIG (most important guy). In this concept, the backside defender two-passes away touches and follows (or tags) the rolling big man until the hedger can recover. This leaves the backside open for a kick-out but that is a lower percentage shot than a lay-up or FG in the paint.
When an opponent starts knocking down or driving off those corner kick-outs, Virginia can switch to a zone drop. In this concept, also known as leveling, instead of hedging the ball-screen the defender will drop beneath the 3-point line instead of following so that the guards can slide under and cut off dribble penetration. The Achilles heel in this system are guards that aren’t afraid to shoot over the defense or bigs that can “pick-and-pop” with efficiency.
A simple concept not often employed by Tony Bennett and staff, and most noticeable when Jay Huff exits, is switching on the ball screens. In this concept, the player screened is now responsible for the screener regardless of position 1-5. This is most often the case when UVA goes smaller with their lineup.
Understanding the defensive concepts of the Pack Line are grueling for a player which is why we see a lot of redshirting or low playing time for UVA players new to the system. Keep in mind that Jay Huff had very limited minutes his first three years as he seemed lost on the court while on defense. When all you’re thinking about is where to be on defense and you’re running around lost, your offensive output will struggle. Despite how complex these new concepts may still seem, they are significantly simpler than the Pack Line. By simplifying the defense, Tony Bennett and staff have freed the minds of their blended cast on the defensive side of the ball which has led to increased defensive efficiency and allowed his stable of offensive threats to play more freely. Two of Tony Bennett’s five pillars are “humility” and “servanthood.” He has put those on display by humbly adapting his patented defensive system to best serve the skills of the players he has. Brava, Mr. Bennett, on a world-class and Hall of Fame adjustment.