On the surface, you might think Virginia basketball under Tony Bennett is ugly. You might think the games are too low-scoring and that the team doesn't produce enough highlight reel moments. But look more closely and you'll find that there's actually an innovative strategy behind the action out on the court. It's effective if not elegant. And so far, it's looking like a perfect fit for Virginia.
Defense - For Tony Bennett and Virginia, everything they do hinges on defense. Tony's father, Dick Bennett, was widely considered a defensive guru. During his career, he developed a defensive system that forced a certain style of play...then created a second defensive system that forced almost the total opposite style of play. That second system, known as the Pack-Line defense, is what Virginia employs. It's tough to understand, but when played right, it's a thing of beauty.
The Pack-Line defense starts when a Virginia shot is missed and the opponent gets a rebound. Next time a Virginia player misses a shot, you'll notice all five players on the court sprint back to prevent a fast break. That's a major tenet of Bennett's system -- limit fast-break opportunities. From there, the on-the-ball defender will pressure the ball handler. The four remaining defenders will crowd behind an imaginary line 16 feet out from the basket. They'll act as a "pack" of defenders behind this "line." Hence the name. The pack's job is to cut off any drives to the lane. They'll allow the ball to rotate around the perimeter, at which point the initial on-the-ball defender will fall back to the pack, and the new on-the-ball defender will go out to pressure the ball. The four players behind the "pack-line" will adjust themselves to prevent drives from the new ball-handle. This process will continue until, in an ideal situation, the offensive team takes a contested perimeter shot or turns the ball over out of frustration.
The pack-line defense results in a number of things you can observe as a fan. First, by limiting fast-break opportunities and initial drives, it makes it VERY difficult for the opposing team to get off a good quick shot. The result is that the opposing team will spend a lot of time and energy moving the ball around. All that time they use will slow down the pace of the game and bring the scores down.The second thing you'll note is that Virginia will allow other teams to shoot from the perimeter. And typically, when Virginia loses, it's because other teams get hot from the perimeter at some crucial point during the game. But Bennett is willing to take the perimeter risk in exchange for protecting the paint.
Throughout the year, you'll hear commentators talk about "clashes of style." They'll say things like, "Virginia wants this game in the 60s, while North Carolina wants it in the 80s." Usually, because of the Pack-Line, the game will be played in the 60s. It's been amazing the last four years to watch prolific offenses come to a halt when they meet Virginia's defense. That's definitely by design -- and it bodes well for the Cavaliers more often than not.
Offense - While there's a little more flexibility in the rules around Virginia's offensive system, there are still a few main principles. You'll often hear Coach Bennett talk about "being sound with the basketball." He wants the team to limit turnovers, take smart shots, and overall make smart decisions. A lot of times, this can further slow down the speed of the game. But again, that's by design. Virginia would rather take a smart shot with 5 seconds left on the play clock than a riskier shot with 20 seconds left. It makes sense when you think about it like that, but it's not as common as you'd might think. North Carolina, for example, likes to take quick shots. They try to speed up the game, which puts their often superior athletes in a better position to win. Take note of that difference when the teams meet early next year. It will be an enlightening contrast in strategies.
Bennett loosely employes what's called a "Blocker-Mover" offensive system, which is also handed down from his dad. For our purposes, just know that there are two types of players: "blockers" and "movers." The primary task for the "movers" is to handle the ball. The primary role for the "blockers" is to set screens and create space for the movers. Joe Harris is a mover. Harris can be at any spot on the court he wants, and he can take any type of shot he wants. Some of that freedom comes from experience and trust, but much of it also by design. The offense is setup so players like Harris are in position to make most of the decisions with the ball.
In contrast, the "blockers" have limited spaces they're allowed to operate in and fewer freedoms with the basketball. Mike Tobey is a great example. Tobey can score quite a bit himself, but much of that comes from shots around the basket or from mid-range jumpers. Further, a lot of those opportunities will come after he has set screens for Harris and the like. You won't see Tobey handling the ball too often. That's by design.
Overall - What I like about Virginia's system is that it doesn't rely on athleticism or star power. In that respect, I think it's a great fit for the program. Dick Bennett designed these offenses and defenses to give his less-athletic teams at Wisconsin Green-Bay a chance to win games against more athletic power conference teams in the NCAA tournament. Virginia, which recruits well but not phenomenally, often finds itself on the shorter end of the athleticism scale. Bennett's system is a great equalizer when it's run well. It frustrates opponents and keeps Virginia out of a lot of track meets that don't bode well. Now that Bennett and his system are firmly entrenched at Virginia, the Cavaliers are set for a sustained run of success unlike any we fans have seen in twenty years. That, too...is by design.