RUSTY: If I’m reading these right — and I think that I am — this is probably the least accessible vault ever designed. Oops. Actually, you know what, I’m wrong. It’s definitely the least accessible vault ever designed.
— Ocean’s Eleven
RICHMOND, Va. – In the end, the vault in “Ocean’s Eleven” wasn’t impenetrable, and neither is Virginia’s “Pack Line” defense, but they’re both pretty close. Shaka Smart’s game plan for Saturday’s match-up with the Cavaliers might not need to be as elaborate as Danny Ocean’s, but it’s up there.
Pioneered by former Wisconsin and Washington State Coach Dick Bennett, the “Pack Line” defense has become an effective system for a number of programs across the country. Of late, it’s been the driver of success for one program in particular, Virginia, coached by Bennett’s son, Tony.
Last season the Cavaliers ranked fifth nationally in defensive efficiency and rode the system to an ACC title and the Sweet 16. This year, Bennett’s defense could be even better. In Virginia’s eight games, just one, Maryland, has scored more than 56 points. Rutgers may be in the Big Ten basement, but it’s still a high-major program. The Cavaliers (8-0) held the Scarlet Knights to 26 points on Nov. 29, including just eight in the second half of a 45-26 win. UVA currently ranks third in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rating.
The Pack Line is a variation of traditional man-to-man defense. One defender pressures the ball, while players on the wings sag and clog the lane, while post players are fronted. The defense makes dribble penetration difficult and often forces teams to the perimeter. This season UVA opponents are shooting just .331 from 2-point range, the third-best rate in the country.
While VCU overcame the defensive-minded Cavaliers for a 59-56 win in Charlottesville last season, the Rams hardly set the nets on fire, shooting 41 percent from the field. VCU turned the Cavaliers over 19 times in that contest, and Treveon Graham grinded out a workman-like 22-point performance, including a long 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds remaining.
The Rams know this year’s game could be even more challenging. Despite the loss of Joe Harris to graduation and the NBA, Virginia’s has looked, so far, better than ever. So, how do you crack the code on the Pack Line?
“No one knows,” said junior Melvin Johnson. “It’s a great defense. They lose a pro and surprisingly they get better on defense. I don’t know…we’re going to have to, today in practice, see what coach’s plan is and try to execute and hopefully Treveon will do what Treveon does.”
For VCU, finding, and taking, a shot early in the shot clock is nothing new. The Rams like to play fast, and they’re not going to turn down a good look just because it’s early in the clock. But those kind of looks – actually, any good looks – are usually hard to come by against Virginia.
“The goal obviously on offense is to get a great shot on every possession. I think Virginia’s as good as anybody in the country in keeping you from getting a great shot, so for us, it’s important for us to be aggressive on offense,” Smart said Thursday. “It’s important to have a level of toughness. One thing Virginia really doesn’t get enough credit for is they’re an extremely physical team. They’re a very tough-minded team.”
Virginia opponents are averaging just 46.2 points per game this year while shooting a paltry .311 from the field.
“Their defense, that pack line, is pretty impressive. Not pretty impressive, extremely impressive,” Johnson added. “We’re just going to go into practice, see what Coach Smart’s plan is, see what he wants to do, execute against that Pack Line and hopefully it’s to our advantage.”