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How two impact players restored Virginia’s elite defensive status

Impact players Ryan Dunn and Reece Beekman make this year’s version of the pack line uniquely aggressive

Texas A&M v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In the Tony Bennett era, Virginia Cavaliers basketball has cemented a reputation for their stellar defense. The signature Bennett Pack Line suffocates opposing offenses, forcing teams out of their rhythm and into contested shot attempts late in the shot clock. Other noteworthy defensive systems, like Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” at VCU or Bob Huggins “Press Virginia” at West Virginia, rely on intense on-ball pressure, pass denials, and frequent traps in order to force as many turnovers as possible. The idea is to create fast-break opportunities through disruptive plays.

Bennett instead emphasizes positioning, quick and fluid rotations, and solid defensive rebounding to stifle opponents and wear them down as the game progresses. Yet with an uncharacteristic Virginia roster in 2023-24, the Hoos defense has produced some havoc of their own, forcing turnovers at an astounding rate.

Here’s a look at what makes this iteration of Virginia’s defense different than past Bennett squads, for better and for worse:

Stock Season

It’s the season of the stocks for Virginia in 2023-24. The accumulation of “stocks” — total steals and blocks — has spurred Virginia to another top 15 defensive season (13th in the nation in Bart Torvik and 12 via KenPom) so far this year.

The Hoos are one of two teams in the country who rank top-10 in both block and steal percentage. They force turnovers on 22.7% of possessions, the highest clip of any Tony Bennett team ever. You would expect a statistical jump like this to be the product of a major strategical change, but Tony hasn’t made anything more than a few tinkers with the Pack Line.

The reason for this statistical outlier is two individual defensive superstars: Ryan Dunn and Reece Beekman.

Tony Bennett has rolled with an unorthodox lineup this season, with no true center and three second-year starters. The five-men — Jake Groves and Blake Buchanan — lack experience in the Pack Line, which is made clear by some clunky rotations and poor defensive positioning. Easy layups from opposing big-men on Wisconsin, Memphis, and Notre Dame have triggered several blowout losses for the Hoos. The only piece keeping the defensive frontcourt together is arguably the most versatile defensive player in the nation: Ryan Dunn.

The Ryan Dunn Factor

Ryan Dunn is a one-man stock factory, churning out steals and blocks on a nightly basis. Dunn’s length, athleticism, and defensive instincts; combined with a year of experience in the Pack Line, position him as a true game-wrecker in the four-spot of Bennett’s defense.

In this play late against Texas A&M, Wildens Leveque breezes by Jake Groves after faking a dribble hand-off. Instead of forfeiting an easy finger-roll layup, Dunn instantly jumps into the lane to alter the shot.

Early in the game against Syracuse, Dunn gets caught on his back feet after a quick rip through and drive by Kenny Williams. Nevertheless, Dunn recovers in time to come from behind and send Williams’ layup careening off the backboard.

As most Virginia fans (and NBA scouts) can tell, Dunn is a generational defensive talent. In football terms, he’s the ever-lurking free safety, ready to pounce whenever the slightest opportunity arises. Dunn’s multi-faceted skillset consistently covers up mistakes made by Groves and Buchanan, as he impedes otherwise open layups when Groves or Buchanan get beat through his quickness and length.

Without Dunn, the defense would be left with an irreplaceable, 6’8’’ with a 7’1’’ wingspan-sized hole.

Reece Beekman

If Ryan Dunn’s the free safety, then Reece Beekman is the lockdown cornerback. The reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year has showcased his dominant defensive abilities in a season not encumbered by injuries. Beekman leads an inexperienced Virginia backcourt, taking on the best opposing guards every single night, and doing his best to make their nights miserable.

When Virginia needed a stop on the final possession against Florida, Beekman deflected Walter Clayton Jr’s pass attempt, grabbed the ball, and won the game for the Hoos.

At the end of the first half against Louisville, Beekman tiptoed the sideline to intercept a pass before lobbing an alley-oop to Ryan Dunn on the other end.

Both Dunn and Beekman make winning plays on defense, shifting the momentum of games through fast breaks generated by steals and crowd-erupting shot blocks. Beekman has shut down a slew of talented scoring guards, from Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor to Syracuse’s Judah Mintz. As ACC play progresses, Beekman needs to continue to erase opposing stars from games, commanding the young defensive backcourt for the Hoos.

Bad Defensive Rebounding

The most glaring weakness in Virginia’s defense is their inability to secure defensive rebounds. The Hoos are undersized without a true center, and it shows in their failure to keep even average-sized, mediocre rebounding teams off the glass.

Virginia allows offensive rebounds on 31.2% of attempts (KenPom) which ranks 236th in the nation and 13th in the ACC. For reference, from 2014-2023, Virginia averaged 25.0% offensive rebound percentage allowed, finishing in the top-50 in the nation in 9 out of 10 seasons. Bennett places an emphasis on defensive block-outs as a core principle in his defense, and this undersized, less physical unit is not meeting expectations.

To make up for their lack of physical gifts, Virginia needs to crash the defensive glass as a team, guards and bigs alike. Perhaps this means more minutes for a player like Taine Murray, who rebounds well for a wing player, utilizing his relative size and strength to position himself for defensive rebounds.

Team rebounding is essential, but most rebounds come from the four and five spots, where Virginia really lacks size and physicality. Ryan Dunn and Jake Groves frequently find themselves in one-on-one battles where they’re giving up forty pounds and three inches to opposing bigs. No matter how hard they fight down low, it’s an uphill battle for Virginia.

Therefore, the single-greatest piece in the equation is the development of Blake Buchanan. Buchanan has the tools necessary for a fantastic rebounder, he’s 6’11” and athletic, but his true freshman body is often overmatched against stronger veteran opponents. Buchanan’s looked soft and hesitant in matchups against quality opponents, such as Wisconsin or Memphis. For Virginia to improve on the defensive boards, Buchanan will need to improve, taking his lumps as ACC play picks up in 2024.

Overall, Virginia’s defense is improved from the past few seasons. They’re anchored by the two stars, and there’s reason for optimism surrounding their overall improvement this season with encouraging signs from young players such as Elijah Gertrude and Leon Bond. While the defensive upside is evident, Virginia is missing the consistency that defined previous Tony Bennett powerhouse teams. Virginia can only reach their ceiling this year if they find that consistency, which starts with better defensive rebounding, defensive rotations, and continuing to create turnovers.