Basketball changes defensive approach

Jackets using Pack Line defense for 2019-20 season

There aren’t many college basketball programs that have matched the University of Virginia’s success over the past decade. 

Four ACC regular season titles, two conference tournament championships and, most importantly, a 2019 national championship win have turned the Cavaliers into a national powerhouse. 

One of the key reasons for Virginia’s success has been its defense. 

The specific defense that UVA coach Tony Bennett’s team operates under is the “Pack Line.” 

At Waynesburg University, first-year head coach Tim Fusina has implemented the same concept. Fusina brought the Pack Line to Greene County after using it during his two seasons as head coach of California Lutheran. Before that, Fusina said every school he assisted at used variation of a half-court man-to-man defense.

“It was a way too try to limit rhythm shots for our opponent from the perimeter,” Fusina said. “We wanted to shorten our angles to close out, shorten our space to close out and really put a premium on contesting shots and blocking out and keeping the ball out of the paint.”

Waynesburg switched to the Pack Line after running a more traditional man-to-man defense under former head coach Mark Christner. In the Pack Line, all five defenders are watching the ball. Aside from the player guarding the ball, everybody must be inside an imaginary line that’s located 16 feet from the rim. 

To represent that line Fusina said, there is a dot on the floor at the old gymnasium inside the Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse. 

“The only person outside of that is the guy guarding the ball,” Fusina said. “There’s some bad habits that we’ve had to break because guys have been told, or maybe they haven’t been told, and they’ve gone and just denied [passes] all the way out there. And they weren’t cognisant of positioning. Now they are.”

Like every strategy, however, there are possible drawbacks to the Pack Line. One of the drawbacks, Fusina said, could come when the Jackets run into an offense that is fluent in screening away from the ball. 

“Sometimes screens that are off the ball can be a problem because you’re not really in the Pack Line at that point when there’s a screen,” he said. “Also, if you’re seeing a team that wants to attack the paint, I think it could be a little bit more trouble if they have two or three guys that can drive from the perimeter, because you’re constantly going to have to help on the ball and recover.”

Of the teams Waynsburg will play this season, few, if any, will be running the Pack Line. Although this makes Waynesburg unique on the defensive end, on the other side, what the scout team offense throws at Waynesburg in practice will be different from what the Jackets see from opposing teams during games. For Fusina, this could be problematic for the offense. 

“I don’t know how many teams we’re going to see employ this during the year, but the way we defend is so, we try to shrink the floor, and it’s kind of difficult to play against that in practice because of our spacing,” he said. “We’re a team offensively that wants to have great spacing. We want to be high and wide. When you’re only denying to that area on the floor that we tape down, you kind of creep in. So it messes up our spacing.”

So far, the Pack Line has produced mixed results. Through six games, the Jackets had given up 77.6 points a night, which ranked sixth out of the nine teams in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. 

Both Fusina and senior Brennan Smith agree that the biggest challenge for Waynesburg on the defensive end is communication.

“When we speak, we’re very good,” Fusina said. “It’s those times when we don’t speak where we give up points it seems. Probably the other area is jumping to the ball, and making sure we’re in posting especially on the help side.”

“If you talk on defense,” Smith said,  “anybody can play defense. Our communication and probably just our spacing, on the floor, playing in gaps. Looking for help side, stuff like that.”

Although Waynesburg’s season hasn’t gone according to plan, as Waynesburg was 0-6 heading into conference play, Smith is optimistic that once the Jackets click, the Pack Line can be effective. 

“It’ll help our team just with our length, and once we learn it I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s just the change of figuring all that out right now.”