Case Study: Virginia

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Virginia is no longer undefeated, leaving Kentucky alone atop the polls. Last week we looked into the Wildcats. Now, it’s time to take a look at the No. 2 team in the AP poll, the Virginia Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers have been rapidly improving since hiring head coach Tony Bennett in 2009, improving both their overall and conference records every year since. With a hard-nosed defensive focus, Virginia leads the country in holding opponents to 50.4 points per game. Much of this incredible showing is due to its incredible play off of fast breaks. Virginia averages 2.2 fast break points allowed per game, an absurdly low number that leads the NCAA. In fact, the only team Virginia has played so far to have scored more than 2 points off fast breaks happens to be the one team that defeated them, Duke. These amazing stats are mainly due to the success of Bennett’s offensive strategy, the pack-line defense.

The use of the pack-line defense has increased in college basketball in recent years, and Virginia’s success is an extremely large part of that. The intricacies of this defense include pieces of Virginia’s own strategy, but to give a brief overview, the entire strategy hinges on two things: Strong defenders who apply pressure to the ball handler deep outside the arc, and the remaining defenders who stay close together to keep the baseline shut and stop inside passes. This drives the ball outside, forcing teams to beat them with the 3-point shot.

Bennett is no schmuck on the offensive side of the court either, running the well-defined blocker-mover system. Three guards (or movers) stay outside, moving around the entire half court, while the blockers remain close to either side of the free throw lane throwing screens to free the movers. A simple offensive strategy that relies on the team making the shots that are given to them, the Cavaliers are held up by their elite defense. This a trend we see amongst all the teams at the top of the AP poll.

Like Kentucky before it, Virginia has made its way to the top with a consistent offense and a tight defensive plan. While it’s no longer unbeaten, no team will walk into Charlottesville feeling confident, and that’s just how Bennett likes it.

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