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The Defense That’s Killing Rutgers Basketball

It’s designed to take away the drive.

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NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, about halfway through the game, the color commentator mentioned what kind of defense Illinois was playing. The Fighting Illini haven’t been a good defensive team this year, and I was stunned at how effectively they were shutting down the Scarlet Knights. The system is called the pack line defense, and effectively, it’s this year’s Rutgers team’s worst nightmare.

The pack line defense was developed by Dick Bennett at Washington State and passed down to his son, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, who’s perfected it.

The pack line defense is also known as a sagging defense, where four defenders sag off their men and play closer to the key. And the guard defending the point guard pressures the offense’s point guard so the point guard’s vision is impaired. When the guard attempts to drive, the defense closes in on him cutting off the lane.

Essentially, the main tenent of this defense takes away Corey Sanders’ strength, which is why, I think, you see Sanders falling in love with the jumper at the top of the key. It is simply too difficult for him to get to the rim.

The pack line defense is susceptible to good three point shooting, but only if the three point shooters are quick. The defense relies on defenders being able to jump the wings with hands up high when a guard or wing catches the ball to the shoot the three. Rutgers is simply not a good three point shooting team—at least not enough to use that weapon to upset a team on the road. You’ve seen Issa Thiam and Geo Baker get open at times, and Baker even opened the game with two threes last night. But the defense adjusts later in the game, and those wing players are jumped or closed out on even more quickly that usual.

And finally, there’s the big men. My quick tutorial on the pack line defense showed me that big men get double teamed with the ball. It’s hampering Deshawn Freeman. Freeman is at his best in the open court, driving to the basket or when he’s crashing the offensive boards. When he catches the ball down on the block, his instinct is to fade away from the hoop. A double team makes the fadeaway even more difficult and often his best bet is to pass it off to a cutter or another big man. But the defense cuts off the cutter.

So far this season, it appears that Michigan—who usually plays a zone—at least employed the wing jumping portion of the defense. Illinois played a full throated version, which also gave them ample opportunity to block out and take away Rutgers rebounding strengths. And because he’s not able to get to the hoops, Sanders is clearly frustrated.

Indiana’s new coach Archie Miller employs his version of the pack line defense as well, which will pose a major problem for the Scarlet Knights next Monday.

Now, looking at team stats, it appears that both Illinois and Indiana haven’t been good defensive teams this year, as they’re learning new systems under new coaches. But that’s part of the pack line defense. From what I’ve seen, it appears notoriously difficult to learn and to buy into early in a coach’s tenure. But now it’s February (just about) and teams have been playing this defense for more that three quarters of a season—they’re getting used to it.

Bad timing and scheduling for Rutgers.

So, what can the Scarlet Knights do? Well, Miller and Brad Underwood are going to be in the Big Ten for quite a long time, and both have very good resumes. Pikiell is going to need to counteract this kind of defense by recruiting lots and lots of shooters. The more shooters you can roll out on the court, the less effective the pack line is, because you’re not relying on the dribble drive.

As for this season? It’s going to be tricky. The key for Rutgers is to get healthy and fast. Adding Mike Williams, and his craftiness and knack to make a key shot, back to this line-up will add another weapon to the court. If Eugene Omoruyi can get back on the court, his athleticism and ability to break down a defense from the foul line then get to the hoop then dish it will make things easier for Freeman.

Steve Pikiell and his staff are much smarter than I am, and no doubt they are working hard to figure out ways to break down these defenses and others in the Big Ten for the rest of the season. But the pack line system is a tricky one to solve.

But maybe another good shooting night, like we saw against Iowa, is coming.