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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/21/2008 02:05:00 PM

Xs and Os: Wazzu's Pack-Line Defense

(Ed.'s note: There are things that this blog is good at (or at least I'd like to think so): chasing around 16 seeds, posting amateurish photos from my Canon Elph, and promoting our pool on Facebook. I am not, however, entirely qualified to provide you with a thorough breakdown of a team's defensive scheme. That's why the blog has enlisted an expert -- coach Bruno Chu of the blog The X's and O's of Basketball -- to give us a few guest posts during the dance. The third: a look at how Washington State managed to suffocate its first-round foe in Denver. Bruno takes it over from here.)

In Washington State's first-round win over Winthrop on Thursday, the Cougars put together one of the best defensive halves I've ever seen. They managed to turn a game that was 29-29 at half into a 71-40 rout, mostly by making adjustments such as switching point guard Derrick Low onto the Eagles' top scorer, Chris Gaynor.

What makes Wazzu so great on defense, though, is its system. Dick Bennett, the father of current Cougs coach Tony, created the pack-line D and installed it when he arrived in Pullman. Tony stuck with it, and in the two years that he has been head coach, WSU has ranked in the top 20 in the nation in defensive efficiency (finishing 12th in 2007-08).

The Pack-line: It's not significantly different than your traditional man-to-man defense; all the fundamentals are there. But what the Cougs do is put pressure on whichever player has the ball, and then all of their other defenders play help-side, or in coach-speak, "up the line" D.

The reason it's called a pack-line is because all of WSU's defenders -- except the one on the ball -- must stay inside an imaginary line. When a pass is made, the defender is taught to close out toward the ball with proper footwork and high hands, in order to prevent the shot. The other Cougars rotate to provide help-side D.

The real advantage in running the pack-line D is that it prevents dribble penetration and forces teams to shoot from the outside. It also makes it easy to double-down on the post, because it shortens the distances in between defenders.

When Wazzu faces Notre Dame in the second round on Saturday, the key will be whether or not the Irish are able to shoot well from the perimeter. If they hit threes to force the Cougs to stretch the pack-line to beyond the arc, that will open up ample opportunities for Luke Harangody in the post.

(Read more from Bruno Chu, a high-school coach in Vancouver, B.C., on his excellent blog: The X's and O's of Basketball.)

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