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Virginia Cavaliers Basketball: Understanding How Virginia Plays Defense

Defense. It's what Virginia does.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Ask anyone who's watched Tony Bennett's Cavaliers the last five years about the key to the program's success, and you're likely to hear the same thing from all of them: Defense with a capital "D." Virginia doesn't have the best athletes or the flashiest players ... but the Wahoos get after it on defense as good as any team in the country. So if you want to be a serious Virginia fan, or if you want to take part in our Pack-Line Pledge for a great cause, you should know how Virginia's defense works.

A bit of background is helpful. 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 most of his teammates will 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-handler. This process continues 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. But Bennett is willing to take the perimeter risk in exchange for protecting the paint.

To be sure, the pack-line isn't unbeatable. If Virginia has trouble defending particular ball-handlers, for example, the pack-line becomes vulnerable. We saw that last year in the loss to Maryland in College Park. Virginia had trouble keeping Seth Allen and Dez Wells out of the paint and the Terps pulled out the victory. Another place Virginia can get hurt is if a team gets hot from the outside. We saw this last year against Tennessee, when it seemed for a while like the Volunteers couldn't miss. But on the whole, the pack-line frustrates the snot out of most teams. And with Virginia sporting seven returning players with pack-line experience, it could be another great year defensively in Charlottesville.