The basketball coach at Virginia 30 years ago, Terry Holland, was flush: He had 7'4" center Ralph Sampson—a singular player who was so talented that he declared himself "the next stage of basketball development"—and the nation's No. 1 team, which was headed toward a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament. The coach of the Cavaliers today, Tony Bennett, has a Sampson-sized challenge: His 7-foot center is out with a broken ankle, his righthanded shooting guard is hindered by a broken left hand, and his 22--8 team, which is clinging to UVA's first big-dance bid since 2007, has only one real option on offense: senior forward Mike Scott.
This is an article from the March 12, 2012 issue
Bennett didn't inherit the anxiety that drove his father, Dick, out of the game shortly after taking Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000, but he is the caretaker of a defense created by his father to help overcome competitive disadvantages. The Pack-Line defense is a containment system in which one man pressures the ball and the other four stay in help position within an imaginary 16-foot arc around the basket. Virginia deploys it well enough to rank first in the nation in fewest points allowed per possession (0.87). But what the Cavaliers do, Tony says, isn't groundbreaking. "It's just about having an iron will and saying we won't budge on certain things defensively."
Bennettball demands stubbornness; its rules are called "nonnegotiables." What's unusual about this system, which has spread to high schools and colleges around the country, is that to become a Pack-Liner, Dick Bennett had to do more than budge: He had to ditch the system that first made him famous.
IT'S 1984 AND Dick Bennett, 41, is standing in front of a dusty chalkboard. At the top he has written STOP BALL and underlined it. Drawing attention to himself isn't his sort of thing; he was talked into making this instructional video by his assistant, Rod Popp, who's working the camera. Bennett is the reigning NAIA coach of the year, having taken Wisconsin--Stevens Point to the national title game, but he has no expectation that the tape, Pressure Defense: A System, will spread very far.
Bennett tells the camera that defenders in this man-to-man system must apply intense pressure and gamble with reckless abandon—a curious order from someone whose teaching style is painfully thorough (the video will run 82 minutes) and whose yellow UWSP polo shirt is neatly tucked into his blue polyester coaching shorts. He's a tightly wound man with a blueprint for suffocating "oh-fenses," as he occasionally says in his Nordic Wisconsinese.
This early version of Dick Bennett D aims to force 20 turnovers per game by following these rules: All five defenders must sprint back to prevent transition baskets. The ball is pressured as soon as it crosses half-court, and off-ball defenders are always in denial mode—"on the line and up the line," Bennett says—in the path of potential passes. (The players in the practice footage he splices in, including a young Terry Porter, hop around like trained jackrabbits.) There is no switching, only early help and quick recovery. The ball must be pushed to one side of the floor and then to the baseline, where a help defender is dead-fronting the post. Once the defense has ganged up on that side, the ball cannot be allowed to swing back around the perimeter.
"If you can get the ball on the baseline, eliminating ball reversal is a pleasure," Bennett says. "That's where you're gonna create tremendous turnovers." His earnestness is what makes this the tape's most precious quip, although Bennett's piece of chalk leaves a more lasting impression about 20 minutes into the video. During a vigorous drawing of a court diagram, it snaps in half, causing a brief crack in the coach's demeanor. After a chuckle he quickly gets the lecture back on track, but for years he'll hear broken-chalk jokes from coaches he's just met. That's evidence that his VHS went the pre-Internet equivalent of viral.
Where did the video spread? Where didn't it spread? Bob Hurley of St. Anthony's in Jersey City received a copy at a Marquette clinic in 1985. An instant convert, Hurley implemented the defense during his son Bobby's freshman season and used it to win 15 of his 24 overall state titles and induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Iowa-based Championship Productions bought the video for wider distribution, and in an SI poll in the '90s, college coaches said Dick Bennett was one of the men from whom they most wanted to take a clinic (along with Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Majerus). When Pat Riley became the Miami Heat coach in '95, he cited Bennett as an influence on his aggressive Knicks-era defenses, even though he and Bennett had never spoken. The sideline fraternity knew Bennett as a professor of pressure, but a national audience will meet him as a purveyor of something else.
It's March 17, 1994, and Dick Bennett is a Division I coach in an NCAA tournament first-round game in Odgen, Utah. This isn't his first national TV appearance; he took Wisconsin--Green Bay to the dance three years earlier, when Tony was its star point guard, and nearly knocked off Michigan State. Now the Phoenix is a No. 12 seed, pitted against No. 5 Cal, an up-tempo scoring machine with Final Four aspirations and a soon-to-be No. 2 overall draft pick, Jason Kidd, at point. CBS tells viewers that Bennett is a "guru," but it's an indication of his employer's lack of prominence that analyst Ann Meyers refers to the school as "Green Bay Wisconsin" for the first six minutes of the game. By the time she corrects herself, the Phoenix has a 6--2 lead and two things are evident: Kidd's Bears are flummoxed, and Bennett's new defense has taken a philosophical 180 from the one that earned him guru status.
After the Phoenix sprints back in transition, the team builds a wall in front of Kidd to keep him away from the paint. Gary Grzesk, a 6'5" sophomore guard, is the primary defender on Kidd and becomes the game's quiet hero. Once the defense is set, the player on the ball applies pressure—but his teammates don't. Instead of denying "on the line and up the line," they pack themselves in a 16-foot arc around the basket and constantly reposition themselves, either as helpers who shrink Kidd's potential driving lanes or as angled post-fronters who prevent feeds from the top of the key. (Cal coach Todd Bozeman says it's almost as if the Green Bay defenders are "in the lane posing for a team picture.") The players are content to let the ball rotate, but they refuse to let anyone drive baseline, because post defenders aren't in position to help. No one ventures outside the pack line unless his man is about to catch a pass, at which point the defender closes out with a vengeance, his hands high to prevent a rhythm jumper, while the passer's man retreats to the pack. Gambling for steals is kept to a minimum, in favor of forcing a contested shot and sending all five men to the glass to end the opponents' possession.
How well did the Pack-Line D work on that St. Patrick's Day? The Bears did not get a field goal until almost midway through the half. Kidd was held to 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. And UWGB pulled off the greatest upset in school history, 61--57.
Tony was watching from a sports bar in Charlotte, where he was an against-the-odds NBA success as a backup guard for the Hornets. He saw this coming. When he was a junior at Green Bay in 1990--91, Dick started to doubt that all-out pressure was right for a D-I David that would always be at an athletic disadvantage when it faced power-conference programs. The north-south driving offenses that had come into vogue were tough to stop with slower defenders, and the Phoenix was getting caught out of position and giving up too many offensive rebounds. Dick reluctantly sought out a system that would neutralize the talent gap, and as an experiment he taped down a pack line on UWGB's practice court.
Tony's teams were the guinea pigs, but Dick didn't fully make the pushing-to-packing conversion until after his son turned pro in 1992. A few years after his NBA career ended in '95, Tony became an assistant to his father, who had moved on to Wisconsin. There the pack line was painted on the practice floor. Disciplined defenders are the key to Bennettball, and that season's pack leader was the unscreenable Mike Kelley, who guided the 1999--2000 Badgers to the Final Four.
Tony's Virginia team has a player in the same mold as Grzesk and Kelley. Junior guard Jontel Evans is a 5'11" self-proclaimed "pest" who leads the Cavaliers in steals with 48.
The most difficult part about doing a Pack-Line D story is that the Bennetts pressure you not to do a Pack-Line D story. They just don't believe it's a worthy topic. "The Pack Line isn't revolutionary," Tony says. "It's a basic containment man-to-man, built on simple rules that my dad put together. I wouldn't want to waste your time."
From Dick, more of the same: "We're very respectful of the work that's gone into developing defense," he says, "and the last thing that I want is to be thought of as an inventor of a defense that's been played in many variations." He adds that he didn't even coin the term pack line—that came from a marketing guy who talked Bennett into making a DVD on the new system.
So, in order to do a story on the Pack-Line D, you must assure the Bennetts that you won't say it's sui generis. Everything in modern basketball is built on something else, and Bennett stresses that he was influenced by Bob Knight's helping man-to-man at Indiana, Lou Henson's ball-line defense at Illinois, and Colorado State's Boyd Grant's emphasis on the importance of a player's keeping his hands high while closing out. Bennett selected the pieces that best fit his team, made a set of rules and drilled his players incessantly. He may not have been an inventor, but he has been a shrewd editor and an even better teacher.
His 2005 Pack-Line DVD became one of Championship Productions' best sellers and helped the defense gain traction outside the Bennett family. (Dick's daughter Kathi teaches it at Northern Illinois, and his brother Jack did the same at Stevens Point.) Arizona coach Sean Miller's father, John, a high school coach in Beaver Falls, Pa., admired Bennett's methods. When Sean got his first head coaching job, at Xavier in 2004, he implemented the Bennett's D and used it to reach the 2008 Elite Eight. Now, with the Wildcats, Sean has made the Pack Line the third most efficient D in the Pac-12. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Arizona is the nation's fourth-best team at defending jump shooters. Miller's successor at Xavier, Chris Mack, stuck with the Pack-Line, and Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson used a hybrid of it to upset No. 1-seeded Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament. Butler used Pack-Line principles in its recent back-to-back runs to the national title game, although coach Brad Stevens has reconfigured his defense, as Bennett had before him, into something that will inspire a future branch of coaches.
College basketball's steady de-acceleration since the '90s has less to do with stalling offenses than with the rise of containment defenses. Virginia plays at the 339th slowest pace in D-I because the Pack-Line is next-to-impossible to score on early in the shot clock. By limiting the number of possessions, Pack-Lining can fuel Cinderella runs but also produce aesthetic atrocities, like the 53--41 Final Four grudge match that Dick Bennett's 2000 Wisconsin team lost to Michigan State. That the system's highest-profile showcase was widely panned as a peach-basket-era grinder does not bother Tony Bennett, whose Cavaliers could be in the bracket as a No. 8 seed, just like his dad's Badgers. Says Tony, "I'd love to get to the Final Four and have them say that about me."
HOW IT WORKS
While Virginia's Joe Harris 1 pressures the Maryland player with the ball, Scott 2 stays on the high side of his man in the post and Malcolm Brogdon 3 is ready to help into the ball handler's driving lane if necessary. Sammy Zeglinski 4 and Evans 5 stay well within the pack line on the weak side. In this game the Cavaliers held the Terps to 26.9% shooting in a 71--44 win.
THE PACK LINE