Over the last three seasons, the Virginia Cavaliers have finished in the top seven in Ken Pom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Since Tony Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, defense has been the name of the game for the Wahoos, and they have given teams fits. Last season, the Hoos kept six opponents under the 50 point mark, and another 13 teams under the 60 point mark. Some of those teams held to a minimal offensive output in 2015-2016? Louisville (47, 48), North Carolina (57), Pitt (50), and West Virginia (54). Not too shabby.
I will not go into the minutia of how the Pack Line works, but if you want a refresher, check out this comprehensive piece from last year written by my esteemed colleague, Paul Wiley.
Instead, I will address what Coach Bennett and the Cavaliers lost - and gained - defensively from last season to this season.
Before that, though, It is important to point out the three fundamental keys that serve as the foundation for the Pack Line:
- Deny the fast break
- Deny the dribble penetration
- Deny the offensive rebound
Coach Bennett and company do not crash the offensive boards. Instead, the Hoos will generally send one player (last season it was Anthony Gill who pulled the majority of the offensive rebounds with 80 on the season) while the rest of the team sets up defensively.
From there, the Pack Line kicks in. Virginia’s goal is to pressure on ball, deny passing and dribbling lanes that improve shot selection, and limit extra offensive possessions. Sounds easy right? So, where do the Hoos stand heading into this season?
Who They Lost
No real big losses...WHO ARE WE KIDDING MALCOLM IS GONE WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO? Ok, the answer is somewhere between the two extremes, but losing a back to back ACC Defensive Player of the Year is a big hit. Malcolm Brogdon’s ability to lock down the one through the four was unprecedented and really unmatched in the NCAA last year. Remember when Cat Barber from NC State was averaging 30 points per game and Brogdon held him to 14? How about when Duke’s Brandon Ingram was cruising with 21 points until Brogdon made the switch and he had just four points over the last 13 minutes of the game? Or against Butler when he stopped Andrew Chrabascz who was on fire?
You get the point. Brogdon was a defensive genius.
In addition to Brogdon, the Hoos lose Evan Nolte who, while much maligned for his decline in shooting over his time at Virginia, was an asset defensively. No, not just because of the #FlyNolteFly play, but because he understood the fundamentals of the Pack Line and gave Coach Bennett solid minutes (although that play was SO cool).
Who They Gain
While Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are big losses, I’d put the brunt of that loss on the offensive end. Neither was an Akil Mitchell or Darion Atkins kind of big man, but they understood Virginia’s defensive concepts and played a solid interior Pack Line role.
Now, with new faces like Austin Nichols and Mamadi Diakite in the mix coming off of redshirt seasons, the Hoos have some legitimate rim protectors. Nichols, who transferred from Memphis, averaged 3.4 blocks per game (12th in the nation) his second year with the Tigers before an ankle injury shortened his season.
When you look at Virginia’s forwards, the height is impressive with Isaiah Wilkins (no slouch at blocking himself) and Jarred Reuter at 6’7”, Nichols and Diakite at 6’9”, and Jack Salt and newcomer Jay Huff both clocking in at 6’11”. Whew. That’s a forest.
What Will the Pack Line Look Like?
It will be interesting to gauge the identity of the defense in the early goings of the season. As mentioned, it has been a luxury (maybe that we took for granted) having Brogdon anchor the defense. His ability to control the game (or even make a defensive stop to end the game - see Cal last season, Wake Forest the season before) is something that will not be replicated this season. Players like Devon Hall, Darius Thompson, Marial Shayok, London Perrantes, and Wilkins will have to play tougher on the perimeter.
Whereas last season Virginia had strong perimeter defense and not much of a last-line (as it pertains to blocking or recovering from mistakes - think Justin Anderson), this season could prove to the be the opposite. A big wild card, understandably, in this whole equation is the defensive development of Virginia’s talented incoming class. We all know Coach Bennett will not play you if you cannot figure out the defense, so where Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter will fit on the court is still an unknown.
The defensive reputation of Virginia has not taken a hit - at least in the media’s eyes, with Sports Illustrated saying this in their ACC season preview:
“Memphis transfer Austin Nichols figures to add rim protection to a defense that ranked No. 7 nationally in efficiency last season and could be No. 1 this time around.”
Number one? Maybe, but Tony Bennett is not going to be the one predicting that, especially not in the preseason. At Virginia’s recent Media Day, Bennett discussed the defense and where they stood:
"They're swimming right now a little bit with the intensity, the volume of work, and how we're trying to be really execution-oriented and be demanding, and there's a lot of slippage you see.
"But the promise is there. Physically, none of them are real physically developed, and I think that is a big factor. I think their skill set is there, they have the feel and those things, but the physical piece is an important piece, and the sooner they can adjust to that and do less thinking and more playing and relying on their abilities, I think they're going to really improve. And there's no shortcut to that."
Virginia fans will not be expecting a shortcut, but cannot wait until this is taking place again: