The packline defense isn’t a new defensive concept, although its use isn’t completely widespread throughout college basketball, either. The strategy was developed by legendary coach, Dick Bennett. To nobody’s surprise, this defensive strategy is now employed by his son, Tony Bennett, at Virginia.
Virginia year-in and year-out has one of, if not THE, best defensive efficiencies in the country. Other notable programs that use the packline defense are Arizona, Xavier, and Indiana. While Virginia ranks at the top of the country in defensive efficiency, all three of the other programs have defenses that are in the top third of the country.
So what’s the magic sauce behind this defense? Or is there one? This complete guide to the packline defense can help you decide if it’s right for your team.
What is the Packline?
People often wonder why this defense is called the packline. The answer to that question is because there’s an imaginary arc that mirrors the 3-point line a couple feet inside of it. That arc is called the ‘packline.’
This imaginary packline is where help defenders will always stay inside of. When you drill your packline defense in practice, it may help to tape down the packline so that your players have a reference point.
Why Play the Packline Defense?
The packline defense is a great defense to run, especially in today’s game, because players are far better with the basketball in their hands than moving without the ball. The entire defense is predicated on taking away driving lanes, which fits right into taking away what today’s players are best at.
Packline Defense – How Do You Play It?
Heavy Ball Pressure
The first key to the packline defense is extremely heavy ball pressure. A common misconception about the packline is that it means sagging off of everyone on offense. That is completely false, as one of the main rules of this defensive strategy is that the on-ball defender should apply heavy pressure 30 feet and in. By applying pressure on the ball, you make it tough on the offensive player to make easy passes or take easy shots.
However, it’s imperative that when you apply heavy ball pressure that you not get beat in a straight line, or get beat baseline. This is contrary to most man-to-man defenses, as you actually want to force your man to the middle where your help is at.
The nice thing about the packline defense is that you are either applying heavy ball pressure or you are in help. Unlike traditional man-to-man defenses, there is no denial aspect to the packline. Instead, if your man doesn’t have the basketball, you are to have two feet inside the packline about halfway between the ball and your man. If there was a line connecting your man and the ball, you should take one step behind that line so that you can actively see both the ball and your man. This concept applies whether you are one, two, or three passes away.
By playing in this help no matter how many passes away you are, you’re playing in the gaps and taking away the offense’s driving lanes.
When the basketball is passed to a player’s man, they need to:
- Move on airtime – This means that as soon as the ball leaves the passer’s fingertips, you should be sprinting to closeout. THIS SHOULD BE A NON-NEGOTIABLE FOR YOUR TEAM.
- Have high, active hands – As you start your closeout toward your man, you should have high hands to take away the player’s vision for a quick pass or shot.
- End with a chop – As you approach your man, you should begin to chop our feet in order to gain your balance and drop into an athletic stance to begin applying ball pressure and playing defense.
Sprinting to Gaps
Even when the ball is not being thrown to your man, it’s imperative that you sprint and move on the airtime of the pass. If the ball isn’t thrown to your man, you should SPRINT to help and play in the gaps that we talked about above.
Your man is defined as being ‘in the post’ if they are within the purple box shown here. You should also note that whether you are a point guard or a center, if your man is within this box, you should be playing post defense on them.
Post defense in the packline is played by:
- 3/4 fronting on the high side – Because you’re playing a 3/4 front on the high side, that’s why it’s imperative that you don’t give up baseline drives. If you do, the offensive post player can just seal his defender to open up an easy driving lane for a layup. You also don’t want to force offensive players on the perimeter to the baseline because that allows them to make an easier post entry when you are 3/4 fronting on the high side.
- Creating an arm bar – You should be creating an arm bar, putting your chin on the offensive player’s shoulder, and work to push them out of the post area. It should be your goal not to allow any post catches with two feet inside of the defined ‘post’ area above.
- Pop back and wall up on a catch – As soon as a post player catches the ball, his defender should ‘pop back’, meaning he should move from the 3/4 front to behind the offensive player. After popping back, he should ‘wall up’, meaning he should show the ref his hands and hold position with his lower body. As Xavier’s Chris Mack puts it, you should ‘show the ref your hands and foul the hell out of him with your hips.”
If the ball is thrown into the post, it is up to you to decide if you want to double the post or not. In today’s game, it is typically not as important to double the post as it used to be, as many more bigs are becoming perimeter-oriented and post skills are dwindling. However, Tony Bennett typically doubles the post with his Virginia teams. There are usually two ways you can double the post:
- Nearest perimeter defender – You can send the nearest perimeter defender to double down and force a pass back outside
- Both bigs – The way Bennett likes to double the post is with both of his bigs. This allows quicker guards to rotate while the bigs can use their length to get the ball out of the post.
Ball Screen Defense
As you’re probably aware, there are numerous ways that you can guard a ball screen, but the most common way in the packline defense is hedge & recover. In this ball screen defense, if your man is setting the screen, you should:
- COMMUNICATE – This is vital. Let the person that is about to be screen know a screen is coming and where it’s coming from.
- Sprint – You should sprint to where the screen is being set. This is an exception to the packline rule, as you can leave the inside of the packline if your man is setting a screen.
- Hedge – You should be in an athletic stance with your shoulders parallel to the sideline. Your goal as a hedger is to force the ballhandler to take two hard dribbles toward the half court line.
- Recover – After the defender of the ballhandler recovers to their man, the man guarding the screener should recover into the gap between their man and the ball.
If you are the man getting screened, you should:
- Apply heavy ball pressure – This is no different than any other packline defense principle.
- Force them to use it – Don’t allow the ballhandler to reject the screen. You need to position your body so that the ballhandler has no option other than using the screen.
- Go over the top – Go over the top of the screen, don’t go under it.
- Recover – As the defender guarding the ball, you should go under the man that is hedging to recover to apply on-ball pressure.
The hedge-and-recover strategy of guarding ball screens is used when the ballhandler is a good shooter and driver, but the person setting the screen isn’t a great three-point shooter.
Other ways to guard a ball screen in the packline defense include:
- Plug – This is when the guy guarding the screener forces the ballhandler to go sideline to sideline by having his shoulders parallel with the half-court line. The guy guarding the ballhandler forces his guy to use the screen, then goes under the screener, but over the plug guy to recover back to his man. This action to guard ball screens is typically used when the ballhandler isn’t a threat to shoot, but is a good driver, while the screener isn’t a great shooter, either.
- Jam – This is the method used when the guy guarding the screener jams up against his man as close as he can, as the defender guarding the ballhandler goes under both of them to recover to the ball. This method is used when the ballhandler isn’t a great shooter, but the screener is.
- Trap – This is a method used when the ballhandler isn’t great at handling pressure. Both the defenders guarding the screener and guarding the ball will trap off of the ball screen.
The packline defense sets your defenders up to be in great rebounding position. However, each player on your team must check somebody out and go get the rebound. Your packline defense should have a heavy emphasis on rebounding to eliminate second-chance points for your opponent.
The packline defense is a little bit different than the typical man-to-man defense that has been taught for years, but it has proven to be effective when properly taught. If you’re thinking about installing the packline defense with your team, be sure that you go through this guide thoroughly multiple times!