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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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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."

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