College Basketball Cheat Sheet: What is the Pack Line Defense


College basketball starts this week so I decided to put together a cheat sheet series to get you caught up. This is really just an effort to stop talking about all the damn suspensions, eligibility questions, FBI investigation and NCAA making terrible decisions, but either way it’s something to follow along with. 

Cheat Sheet for 2017-18 Season: Here 

Cheat Sheet for Offensive Sets Across the Country: Here 

Yesterday I focused on the offensive sets across the country so today it makes sense to focus on defense. However, it’s a little difficult to do multiple defensive sets as a cheat sheet because people know the 2-3 zone or 1-3-1 or straight up man to man. Therefore, I want to focus on one defense in particular. The pack line defense that has made a huge resurgence in recent years led by Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Now, Virginia is hardly the only team to run the pack line defense as Michigan State and Xavier are two other prominent teams that run it as well.

So for those not familiar with it, what exactly is the Pack Line? Well, it’s quite literally a line. Conceptually the defense is set up to encourage dribble penetration, where there is help and typically a double in the corner. Virginia will often front the post with weakside help to take away post touches and then the ultimate goal is to force contested jumpers over the said line. Because you have your ‘line’ set up, defensive rebounds are easy to come by therefore you limit your opponent to one shot and more often than not it’s a long 2 – the worst shot in the game.

The point is pretty simple. You congest the paint, staying within a 16’ arc which forces long jumpers or if someone does happen to get into the paint, layups are contested. If you’re guarding the man with the ball, you apply pressure, well beyond the 3-point line, not letting the offense get comfortable.


This clip shows the core principles of the Pack Line. Take note on the ball screen, how high Virginia forces the ball. While there’s a double up top, the ‘pack’ takes care of the man rolling to the hoop despite playing 4v3. The reason why is because of how Virginia stays spaced defensively. Kyle Guy is able to guard to men simply by being in position. The other thing to notice is how strong Virginia is at rotations. When the ball is swung after the pick and the Cavaliers are rotating back to their men, they don’t miss a beat. There’s communication both verbally and through finger pointing – which is half the battle in college basketball. Eventually Florida State has to shoot a long, contested jumper and Virginia has a 2v1 rebound advantage.

I’m going to get into the rotations here shortly, because that’s really the beauty of Virginia’s defense and the pack line in general. However, in order to talk about the rotations you need to properly see the set up of the defense. I want to show this vs a typical man to man, which relies on denying passing lanes. Take a look at Duke’s man to man defense here against South Carolina. The Blue Devils are known for playing the passing lanes and more importantly known for being a great 3-point defensive team. The reason is due to their man to man principles, which focuses on taking away the pass and the wing. That’s probably the biggest difference between pack line and man to man. Here’s what Duke’s defense traditionally looks like:


You can see there’s pressure on the ball handler and you can see how Kennard and Jones are playing the wings. Jones is in a position especially to deny the pass and take away the 3-point line. On the flip side here’s what Virginia’s pack line looks like


So now that you have a visual of what the pack line is and how it should look, there are certain principles that need to be applied to the defense. First is ball pressure. When the ball is on the perimeter, you will see ball pressure. Teams that run the pack line can get aggressive with ball pressure due to the help and sagging man-to-man behind them. After that it’s stopping the gap attacks. In today’s game with the dribble drive being so important, defenses are forced to make decision in gap protection. The key to this is staying ball-you-man without complete denial. The only time you’ll see a pack line defense go into complete ball denial is when there’s a dead ball. Finally, it’s denial of baseline. The pack line is used to funnel offenses to the middle of the floor where the ‘pack’ is there waiting. If you use the example of the Florida picture above and let’s say the ball gets swung to the corner. If Perrantes gets beat baseline, you immediately have help from Salt as he would drop to the block.

Now, where you see some of the rotations that Virginia is known for is out of the pick and roll sets where there is a skip pass. Teams will run a high ball screen to try and create a little bit of space up top from the ball pressure. They know that they can attack a little bit of the gap off the screen before help side is there. Watch this clip against Florida. It really highlights the pack line and the rotations. You see how they defend multiple ball screens, cut baseline, close with hand high and take away a backcut.


Chris Mack, the head coach of Xavier and another guy who runs the pack line defense talks about it this way. Players are better with the ball in their hands than they were 20 years ago and worse off the ball. That’s just how it is. The dribble drive has absolutely taken over the game and it’s due to the insane talent of the kids these days. What the pack line does from a coaching standpoint is simplify scouting. Instead of going over an in depth scouting report and defensive schemes, you’re focusing strictly on the opponents offensive sets.

He also stresses the important golden rule of the defense and what truly differentiates it from a simple to man to man. Both feet must be inside of the pack line with only two exceptions. The first is your man is a cutter and the second is your man becomes a ball screener. Other than that you have both feet inside that imaginary line.