The Pack Line defense, otherwise known as a sagging man-to-man defense, was created by former University of Wisconsin and Washington State Coach, Dick Bennett. Today, the Pack Line defense can be most commonly seen by Dick Bennett’s son, Tony Bennett, and the University of Virginia Cavaliers. The University of Virginia has achieved much success in recent years and are considered one of the best defensive teams in the country. Have you ever wondered why Virginia holds its opponents to such low point totals? Other than versatile individual defenders and a commitment to rebounding, they use the Pack Line defense.
The Pack Line defense is best for defending the low post, limiting dribble penetration and forcing the opponent to shoot from the outside. This defense can be utilized at all levels of basketball. The “pack line” is an imaginary line that traces from the basket to the offensive player. The “pack” in Pack Line is at right about 16 to 18 feet from the basket. That is where you want the help defense to be positioned. Therefore, the term, Pack Line, really refers to the phrase, “packing it in.”
Although this can be considered a sagging man-to-man defense, this should not be considered a lazy type of defense. Many strict principles apply and for this defense to be effective, the defensive players should be focused and active.
The number one priority in this defense, from an individual defenders standpoint, is applying ball pressure. The ball handler should feel very uncomfortable because they have someone harassing and shadowing their every move. The on ball defender should feel comfortable and supported in applying lots of ball pressure because he or she has four teammates in a ready, help position. Obviously, communicating and having each other’s backs defensively is key, as is with any defense.
When the on ball defender is applying that pressure, the other four teammates are on that pack line, ready to help. When the ball handler penetrates the lane, the help side defender should already be there cutting off the drive. Now, for a brief moment, when two defenders are guarding one person, the ball handler has no other choice but to kick the ball out to the closest teammate. At this moment, we come to the most crucial component of the Pack Line defense. This piece of the puzzle is so important, especially at younger levels; it can make or break the defense: the closeout. When the offensive player kicks it out, the help defender leaves the help position and sprints to close out to the new ball handler. The closeout has to be a good one; choppy feet, well-balanced, high hands. Otherwise, a blow by will happen and the offense can exert their will on the defense. One of the main purposes of this defense is to force outside shots, so a short closeout, forcing the offense to take a perimeter jump shot is the idea.
As one can see, the Pack Line defense is good for cutting off the drive, and forcing opponents into a long contested jump shot. The other thing this defense is good for is defending the low post. When the ball is above the free throw line, the defender guarding the low post should be in a ¾ front. When the ball goes below the free throw line, the low post defender should be in a total front, trusting the help behind them. Additionally, since the defenders are packed in closer to the basket, it makes doubling the post a lot easier than in a denial defense where it will take everyone longer to rotate. If the post player tries to catch the ball from the top of the key, directly in front of the basket, the defense has to go in to a full frontal. Hopefully, this pass will be a difficult one because the ball handler is under intense pressure from the on ball defender.
Although there are a number of crucial components, and a variety of things to remember when running the Pack Line defense, there is one rule that should never be forgotten, and in the case of younger players and youth coaches, if this rule can always be adhered to, then the defense will remain in decent shape no matter what. NO BASELINE. No matter what, the on ball defender should never allow the ball to be driven towards the baseline. The entire focus of the Pack Line defense is that all of the help is towards the middle of the floor. If the ball goes baseline, there is no help. If the ball gets penetrated towards the baseline the post has to help, leaving a wide open dump down to the offensive player occupying the paint, resulting in an easy layup. If a player or coach can take nothing from this article other than one thig regarding the Pack Line defense, let it be to never allow the baseline.
Some other teaching points regarding this defense have to do with rebounding, defending cutters, and getting back in transition. When it comes to rebounding, the defense should already be in between their man and the basket, when the shot goes up, turn and box out your man, release and go get the ball!
For defending cutters, never allow face cuts. It is okay to keep a hand or a couple fingertips on your man as they cut, do not hold, grab or “chug” your cutter. Moreover, remember, as soon as the cutter turns their head as if he or she is no longer actively looking for a pass, that is the signal to get back in to your pack line position.
Lastly, in transition: get back! On a missed shot by your team, sprint back on defense and get to your pack line position in between your man and the basket. Stick to your half court defensive principles.
Every player should be responsible for communicating, getting back on defense, and boxing out. Adjustments can be made for teams with one or two players who are lights out from long range, but for the most part, every player is responsible for being in a low, defensive position, ready to help and cut off the drive or move on the flight of the ball when a pass is made. Remember to always give a good close out, never give up the baseline, and finish every defensive possession with a rebound. This defense would work best in youth basketball or at the high school level but variations can be seen in the NBA and the University of Virginia has become a powerhouse and perennial Final Four contender for the past four or five seasons executing this defense.