The Basketball Viewer's Guide to Man-to-Man Defense

Tony Bennett (no, not that Tony Bennett) is one of many coaches who uses the defense created by his father.

It had been a back and forth game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Virginia Cavaliers. The #14 ranked Wolverines had come to Virginia to play as a part of the 2011 Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and they were now in a dog fight against the unranked Cavaliers. With twelve minutes to go, guard Zack Novak hit a jump shot to put Michigan up 41-38. But the fight was over; the Wolverines wouldn't score again for almost six and a half minutes, when a Tim Hardaway jumper made the sore 43-53. Michigan scored six more times in the remaining five minutes after the Hardaway shot, but it wasn't nearly enough to win. The final score was 70-58. The highly rated Wolverines had fallen to an unheralded team. Coach John Beilein had watched for 40 minutes as his beautifully choreographed motion offense had been chopped to bits by the Virginia defense.

It's [the Virginia defense] always going to be good as long as that man is coaching this team. I'm not crazy with scoring 58 points, but not a lot of teams may score 58 against them. -- John Beilein (ESPN.com, November 29, 2011)

Except for the most experienced viewer, understanding basketball in real time is next to impossible. In basketball, stuff happens too quickly to really allow us to understand the action while it occurs. This hurts our understanding of the game. Making matters worse, the pace of basketball doesn't lend itself to the detailed dissection of plays in the way that football does; in may ways it is easier to be an educated football fan than it is to be an educated fan of basketball.

My interactions with readers on Burnt Orange Nation over the last several years have taught me that there is a great deal of mystery surrounding basketball defense. While most viewers can recognize the difference between zone defense and man-to-man defense, I have the sense that there isn't much understanding of team defensive principles beyond this one difference. I want to help.

This post highlights a few aspects of team man-to-man defense. My aim is to highlight a few of the differences between some of the various styles of man-to-man defense played in college basketball, and to point you to a few of the consequences of these differences. This is not meant to be a detailed description about basketball defense targeted at coaches. This is intended for viewers. The hope is to give you, the basketball viewer, a few different things to look for during games, and to get you to start thinking about this stuff as you watch basketball.

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In 2000, Dick Bennett coached the Wisconsin Badgers to a surprising run to the Final Four. Not once during the 1999-2000 season did the Badgers appear in the AP poll. As an 8 seed, Wisconsin easily beat Fresno State in the first round, creating a second round match-up with the #1 seed in the West, the Arizona Wildcats. Lute Olson's Wildcats were loaded, with future NBA players Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton, and Richard Jefferson, as well as talented point guard Jason Gardner. Wisconsin beat Arizona, holding the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting, and slowly squeezing them to death with what we now call the Pack Line defense.

Burned out, a year later Bennett suddenly resigned as head coach of Wisconsin. He resurfaced in a few seasons, and coached Washington State for three years before retiring and being replaced by his son Tony. Over his long career, Bennett's most famous feat as a coach was that 2000 NCAA tournament run. But Bennett's legacy will always be the Pack Line defense. That is because the Pack Line has spread like wildfire all over basketball. When the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship in 2008, they did it by adhering to many of the Pack Line principles. Butler's two NCAA tournament runs were fueled by Brad Stevens' version of the Pack Line. Sean Miller implemented the Pack Line at Xavier (where it is still used), and later at Arizona. And the Pack Line has spread across high school basketball through the DVDs of Dick Bennett and other Pack Line enthusiasts.

So what exactly is the Pack Line? To see it in its purest form, it is best to watch a team coached by a member of the Bennett family. Dick's son Tony now coaches the Virginia Cavaliers. According to the Ken Pomeroy ratings, the Virginia defense was the sixth best in college basketball last season. Last season, Joshua Riddell wrote a very nice description of Virginia's defense. I am not going to attempt to go into the depth that Riddell did with this defense. But I do want to show you a few of the basic ideas, and show you how to recognize it.

The image below shows a single frame taken from a game between Virginia and North Carolina last season. North Carolina, in the light blue jerseys, has the ball. I have indicated the man with the ball, who is near the upper left corner of the image. To give some context, the Tar Heels are preparing to set a ball screen.

This image shows a few characteristics of the Pack Line defense. With careful study, you can learn a lot from a single photograph. First, I want you to look at the man defending the UNC player with the ball. Notice how his feet are set. His toes are pointed towards the mid-court line, and the plane of the defender's body is almost parallel with the baseline. This defender is not directly on a straight path between his man and the basket, the way that you were taught to defend in grade school. Instead, he is making sure that his man does not beat him by driving towards the sideline, ultimately getting to the baseline. Bennett's defense forces dribble penetration towards the middle, where the help defenders are. If a player is beaten to the outside, it generally results in disaster.

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And now let's talk about those help defenders, or at least one in particular. I have labeled the other perimeter player for UNC as being "1 pass away," meaning that only a single pass from the ball handler is needed for him to get the ball. I have also labeled his defender. Notice that this defender is roughly 17 feet away from the basket. This is the classic characteristic of the Pack Line defense. The off-ball defense is never supposed to extend more than this distance from the basket. As a result, dribble penetration into the lane is difficult. The man guarding the ball is forcing the ball penetration to the middle of the floor, while the other perimeter defenders are crowding near that middle.

This is a very powerful idea; a well run Pack Line defense allows a team to protect the rim without a shot blocker. Virginia is a good example of this. Virginia lacked a dominant shot-blocking center last season, and yet held opponents to 45 percent shooting on two point shots. They did this by limiting chances at the rim in half-court situations.

Nothing comes without a trade-off. In the case of running the Pack Line, a team is conceding that first pass. Denying this pass creates an opportunity for a turnover, which Pack Line teams do not pursue. Denying this pass also can force the offensive player to move away from the basket to open up passing lanes, disrupting the spacing of the offense. And of course, it puts a premium on closing out when the ball is passed to a dangerous shooter. Pack Line teams stress these close outs; one of the easiest ways to recognize a Pack Line defense is to watch the way that defenders close out. Close outs always occur with the defender holding his hands high above his head, to contest jump shots.

What if a defense doesn't want to be so passive? At the other extreme of man-to-man defense is the ball denial approach taken by teams like Duke and West Virginia. This style of defense is meant to disrupt the offense, whereas the Pack Line is meant to stifle it. If the Pack Line approach is most closely associated with Dick Bennett, the father of the modern ball denial defense is probably Bobby Knight. And Knight's most famous pupil, Mike Krzyzewski, has taken this approach to defense to new heights, in part by recruiting the fastest perimeter defenders that he can find, as well as by extending the defense further away from the basket.

The photo below, taken from a game between Duke and Maryland, illustrates some significant differences between this style of play, and the Pack Line. In this case, Maryland has the ball, which is in the hands of the offensive player in the upper left corner of the image. Maryland has things spaced similarly to the image above, although the players are spread a few feet farther from the basket. The type of pressure Duke applies tends to move the offense a bit further out, so this is quite a common situation. Just like in the image above, the offense is preparing for a ball screen.

Let's start with the man guarding the ball. Notice which way he is facing. His toes are pointed towards the sideline, and his back is perpendicular to the baseline. He is turned exactly 90 degrees from the way in which the on ball defender stands in the Virginia defense. This has a very specific effect; it forces the offensive player towards the baseline, and prevents him from dribbling into the middle of the floor. Recall in the Pack Line, this situation is exactly what you are trying to prevent. Because of the sagging defender, the help in the Pack Line comes most easily in the middle of the floor. In the pressure defense of Duke, the help will come along the baseline, from a player on the other side of the court.

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With the ball being forced away from the middle, the defender guarding the perimeter player one pass away from the ball denies this pass. This has several benefits. First, it creates turnovers. This particularly happens when the ball is forced towards the baseline, and the dribbler is cut off by help defenders. In these situations, there are often dangerous passes that can be turned into steals. But in most possessions, the ball isn't stolen. In these cases, this denying defense still has some advantages. It tends to push the offense farther away from the basket than it would normally like to operate, disrupting its spacing and rhythm. Additionally, this type of defense helps with limiting three point attempts. Duke excels at preventing opponents from attempting the three, and this style of defense is a big part of the reason why. With pressure on players away from the ball, there is less need to close out after a perimeter pass.

The downside of this type of defense is that it puts a premium on having very good on-ball defenders. Duke's defense struggled last year, as the level of on-ball defense was well below its typical standard. There is still help in this defense, but the help is further away, and by the time helping defenders rotate over, the attacking player can get deep penetration. With rotations often coming from big men, it makes it harder for these players to box out on rebounds. Duke, for all of their talent, is in most years just average at defensive rebounding. Pack Line teams, like the ones coached by Bennett, the Xavier teams, or Brad Stevens' Butler teams, are usually among the best defensive rebounding teams in the country -- in part because the defense limits penetration and relies less on help from the big men, leaving players in better position to rebound.

Many teams fall in between these two extremes. Texas coach Rick Barnes doesn't make coaching DVDs, so we only can infer his approach to defense by watching. Barnes' adaptability is one of his strengths as a coach -- he is not a "system" coach. In some years, when loaded up with incredibly gifted perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley and Dogus Balbay, Barnes has gone to a full ball denial approach, as described by this X's & O's of Basketball post. Not doing so would have defeated the whole purpose of having a player like Bradley, who laughs at your attempts to screen him.

From what I can tell, in most years Barnes has not played a full out ball denial defense. The photo below shows an early defensive possession of the young Longhorns from last season, in their first game against Boston University. This photo was captured shortly after Texas had recovered from a ball screen set by Boston, so it is hard to get a clear read on the intention of the on-ball defender, as he is still in recovery mode. If you watch the video of the entire possession, you will see that at the very start of the possession that the on-ball defender was forcing the ball handler slightly to the baseline, but was mostly defending straight up.

The most interesting thing about the photo below is the location of the defender one pass away from the ball. Note where he is. He is not in full on ball denial mode, like Duke. He is also not 17 feet from the basket, like Virginia. He is sort of in the middle. This provides a compromise between the two defensive styles. If the offense throws a sloppy pass, this defender is in position to take it away. Otherwise, he is capable of both providing help on a driving defender, but is also in good position to prevent a three point shot, and is forcing the offense to set up further away from the basket.

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There is no right answer. All of these approaches work. Championship teams have pressured the ball. Other champions have played back, allowing the pass on the perimeter.

Now it is time for a test. The image below is taken from the Final Four match-up last season between Kentucky and Louisville. Louisville has the ball. The man with the ball is #3, Peyton Siva, in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Take a look at the alignment of the defense. What do you see? What sort of strengths and weaknesses does this defense create? Is it suited to the team playing it? You can post your answer in the comments section below.

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