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March 12, 2012
The system developed by Dick Bennett two decades ago has his son Tony's Virginia team on the brink of its first NCAA tournament bid in five years
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March 12, 2012

First Line Of Defense

The system developed by Dick Bennett two decades ago has his son Tony's Virginia team on the brink of its first NCAA tournament bid in five years

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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.

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.

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