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Virginia Basketball Countdown: Where does the Pack Line stand in 2017-18?

There are four weeks left until tip-off, so let’s see what Virginia’s Pack Line will look like this season

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Pittsburgh
Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite now have a year of the Pack Line under their belts.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Four weeks from today, we’ll all be celebrating the return of Virginia Basketball to our lives (and hopefully celebrating a bowl eligible football team). To get you ready for Virginia’s opener against UNC-Greensboro on November 10, we here at Streaking the Lawn are hooking you up with all the basketball preseason goodness you didn’t know you needed. In case you missed the past two days, we’ve introduced you to the 7-1 HOO-nicorn Jay Huff and recapped all of the action from last season.

I’m not going to go into the super details of the Pack Line here, but you can read up on the nitty-gritty with Paul’s explainer from 2015 or watch this handy video as a refresher:

Instead, I’m going to look at who the Hoos have lost and gained as it relates to the defense this season. According to KenPom data, Virginia has finished in the top-7 in adjusted defensive efficiency the last four seasons, including second in the country (behind Gonzaga) last year. Virginia’s defense limited opponents to just 87.9 points allowed per 100 possessions (adjusted) against a talented schedule. The Hoos held nine teams (including eventual national champion North Carolina) under 50 points over the course of the season, and another nine under 60. Four of those 18 teams failed to score 40 points on Bennett’s crew.

That’s not too shabby for a squad that lost the 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year (and Player of the Year) who is currently the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year.

There are three fundamental keys that are important to point out that serve as the foundation for the Pack Line:

  1. Deny the fast break
  2. Deny the dribble penetration
  3. 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 Isaiah Wilkins who pulled the majority of the offensive rebounds with 78 on the season) while the rest of the team sets up defensively.

From there, it’s all the Pack Line. Virginia’s goal is to pressure on ball, deny passing and dribbling lanes that improve shot selection, and limit extra offensive possessions. So how can the Hoos do that this year?

Hoo They Lost

This is an interesting change of personnel. We knew London Perrantes would be gone for this season as Virginia’s most stable point guard in recent memory graduated (and left a huge hole in my heart...LONDON I MISS YOU). What Virginia wasn’t counting on was 1. not having Austin Nichols (ugh) 2. losing Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson (and Jarred Reuter, but he certainly wasn’t known for his defense) to transfer.

Making up for Nichols is definitely easier this season than last just based on the fact that Virginia knew not to count on his size and blocking ability this season like they had planned for last season. Shayok and Thompson, however, were a surprise. Still, the loss of Perrantes will be the biggest hit to the defense.

While London wasn’t the lockdown defender that Brogdon was, he played formidable on-ball defense as he hounded opponents. Perrantes averaged over 32 minutes per game over the course of last season and often fell on the losing side of a height mismatch as he faced some of the toughest point guards in the country. His performance in Virginia’s win over #5 UNC late in the season was hands-down his best defensive showing in his time at UVA as he had the unenviable task of marking Justin Jackson (who had a six inch height advantage). London played 34 minutes and helped hold Jackson to just seven points and the Heels to just 43 points in the game.

Last season, London finished fourth nationally with just 1.2 fouls committed per 40 minutes of play. That’s unreal...for reference, Brogdon checked in at 2.4 fouls committed per 40 his fifth year.

Shayok and Thompson were solid with steals - 30 and 28 steals last season, respectively - and London was fourth on the team with 25 steals (Wilkins led the team with 33), meaning the Hoos will have to replace 83 of 190 (44%) of the team’s steals. As steals aren’t a huge focus of the Pack Line, that’s not the biggest concern, but players like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and DeAndre Hunter will have to step up in their place. I may be alone in this thought process, but the man-to-man defense of Shayok and Thompson isn’t the biggest loss. Neither was a lock-down defender, but they did both know their role within the system.

Hoo They Gain

Virginia picks up several pieces this season in a variety of ways with one graduate transfer, two redshirts, and an incoming first year (and another redshirt) joining the ranks.

First up is Nigel Johnson, a 6-1, 182 pound guard joining the Hoos from Rutgers. Johnson is Bennett’s first graduate transfer, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he picks up the Pack Line in his short time in Charlottesville. Wilkins joined Virginia Sports’ Jeff White this week on a podcast, saying that Johnson has been adapting to UVA’s style very quickly, which is a promising sign. Johnson is also a player who could potentially pick up some of the slack with steals as he had 37 for the season last year at Rutgers (1.12 steals per game). Also, Johnson only committed 1.3 fouls per 40 minutes last season, good for 11th in the country. Not too shabby.

Next up, we have redshirt first years DeAndre Hunter and Jay Huff. As mentioned in his player profile, Huff is a 7-1 rangy forward who should provide a lot of rim protection for the Hoos. Hunter, who clocks in at 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan, is a versatile guard that should be able to fill in at several positions. Both Huff and Hunter have had a year of Pack Line training under their belts, but in-game execution is different than practice squad scenarios. Last (but not least) is incoming first year Marco Anthony. Anthony is a 6-4, 228 pound guard out of San Antonio who has been physically compared to Brogdon (!!!). Just like the aforementioned players, the biggest question will be ability to adapt to the system, and as everyone knows, if you don’t play defense, you don’t play.

What Will the Pack Line Look Like?

So many questions surround this lineup. This is arguably the greatest collection of talent with regard to the level of recruits that Bennett has brought in (not saying that they’re more talented than the Brogdon-Gill-Perrantes team, but just in terms of recruit expectations), but the lineup is uncertain. Who starts? How will the new faces adapt to the system? Will the losses of Shayok and Thompson loom larger than expected?

Isaiah Wilkins, Jack Salt, and Devon Hall will all be defensive stalwarts for the Hoos (as expected as the senior leaders on the squad). Jerome and Guy improved defensively over the course of the season, but their offensive contributions often masked defensive lapses. Generally the Hoos avoid foul issues and play a pretty clean game, but Mamadi Diakite (6.7 fouls committed per 40 mins), Salt (5.6 fouls), and Jerome (5 fouls) will have to clean up some of their fouling. As far as blocks, Diakite finished his first year campaign with 39 blocks (averaged 14 minutes per game), second to Wilkins who had 43 (in 26 minutes per game).

All in all, this team has the potential to be outstanding on defense...it is a Tony Bennett squad after all. A lot will depend on how the growth of underclassmen, the development of new faces, and the experience of the upperclassmen mesh on the court and how different lineups play together. Virginia will have a couple games to warm up, but face early season tests on the road at VCU (11/17), and West Virginia (12/5), and at home against Wisconsin (11/27).

When the Pack Line good, it’s good. Let’s hope it’s good.

Check back tomorrow for coverage of Virginia’s football matchup with the Tar Heels (3:30 on regional sports networks), and the next UVA basketball player profile.