By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In Joanne Boyle’s 12 years as a head basketball coach — three at Richmond, six at California and three at Virginia, where she took over in April 2011 — she’s had only one losing season.
That was in 2013-14, when the UVa women finished 14-17. Change was needed, Boyle decided. And so, after a season in which opponents scored all too easily against her team, Boyle scrapped her primary defense, a 1-2-2 matchup zone, and installed the system favored by the guy in the office about 100 yards from hers at John Paul Jones Arena.
No longer is Tony Bennett the only UVa basketball coach whose team plays the Pack-Line defense devised by his father, Dick.
Under the younger Bennett, who came to Charlottesville in the spring of 2009, the Virginia men’s team has become renowned for its defensive prowess. The women are still in the learning stages when it comes to the Pack-Line, but Boyle likes what she sees.
“By no means have we perfected it, and we have some shortcomings, and we don’t have all the length that we need, but I feel like the girls are working hard and really bought into it,” Boyle said.
Senior center Sarah Imovbioh said: “It’s new to us, but I just feel like we’re really working hard to [learn] every detail about the Pack-Line. We started during the summer, and our coaches kind of gave us an idea of how the Pack-Line works. We drilled it a lot during the summer, and once practices started we had an idea. It’s been getting better every single day.”
While Boyle, Imovbioh and junior guard Faith Randolph fielded questions Monday afternoon at a preseason press conference at JPJ, Bennett’s team practiced on the main court. The UVa men are coming off a season in which they won 30 games, swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
“I sat down with Tony and his staff in the spring,” Boyle recalled Monday, “and they spent a lot of time [discussing the Pack-Line]. Tony’s dad came down and spent some time with me and my assistants. So we’ve just spent a lot of time, and I really like it.”
The defense’s name refers to an imaginary line about two feet inside the 3-point arc. The Pack Line is a man-to-man defense designed to clog the middle, protect the paint, and prevent dribble-penetration by guards. Instead of trying to deny the ball on the wings, defenders drop back inside the Pack-Line and then come back out to contest outside shots.
Bennett’s sister Kathi is the head women’s coach at Northern Illinois, where her team plays the Pack-Line too.
“I think if you’re part of that family, you’re doing something Pack-related,” Boyle said Monday, smiling.
Tony Bennett, who succeeded his father as head coach at Washington State, noted Monday that there are “many ways to be effective, so many systems, offensively and defensively. Whether it’s the 2-3 zone Syracuse runs, whether it’s our Pack defense, and there’s teams that really like to extend and pressure.
“It’s really just deciding on something and really believing in it and knowing the system well and working it, and sometimes not giving your guys — or your gals — an option or an out. You say, `This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to make it work.’ Again, the saying is, `It’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize.’ And if our guys know this is what we’re going to hang out hat on, our Pack defense, that’s important.”
During his first season at UVa, Bennett said, there were stretches when his players executed the Pack-Line effectively. “They just weren’t long stretches.”
By Bennett’s third year at Virginia, his players’ grasp of the system and its principles was much stronger, and defensive lapses were less common. The Wahoos advanced to the NCAA tournament that season.
Even now, Bennett said, “we have bumps in the road [on defense]. You can tell the guys that have been through the system. I always say they don’t react as much, they anticipate more. They understand and they can adjust on the fly. They’re more continuous. Where when you start it, you can look a bit mechanical at times.
“I think what helps you is when you have some success with it, when your players know this is the identity, and everybody’s bought in.”
That success may not be immediate, Bennett told Boyle. “He was like, `Don’t quit on it. Just stay with it. Stay the course,’ ” Boyle said Monday.
In 2011-12, the UVa women won 25 games and advanced to the WNIT quarterfinals, partly because of their aggressive 1-2-2 zone. The `Hoos slumped to 16-14 in Boyle’s second season, however, and opponents shot 43.8 percent from the floor against them in 2013-14.
“Our first year we ran a 1-2-2 matchup that I thought was really good for us,” Boyle said. “Then we tried to do it the next two years, and I don’t know that our personnel fit it as well. And just with injuries and trying to teach it and not being able to really do it every day, I think we got a little exposed.
“I’ve always been a man-to-man coach, and I thought one of the [good] things about the man-to-man was just the accountability factor. I just wanted us, as a program kind of starting with a lot of youth, to have a lot of accountability. And it’s obviously easier to do that in man-to-man, and the Pack-Line allows you to do that.”
Boyle has no one on her roster taller than the 6-2 Imovbioh, who’s been prone to foul trouble, in part because she usually has to guard bigger players.
In the Pack-Line, Virginia will look to trap opposing post players, which should take some pressure off Imovbioh, the team’s top returning scorer (12.3 ppg) and rebounder (8.2 per game). Also, Boyle said, the `Hoos “weren’t the best offensive rebounding team last year anyway, and because we don’t have that size, taking transition away from other teams by pulling people off the glass, is part of the Pack-Line. So I thought there were some things that fit us really well this year.”
Boyle said UVa will still press at times before falling back into the Pack-Line, to “just try to change momentum.”
Randolph, who averaged 11.8 points, said her transition to the new defense is going well.
“I guess the most challenging part is probably the reacting,” she said. “You have to react on the fly to the ball, and when you’re late, it kind of messes things up” — Boyle, seated next to Randolph, smiled — “and it can break down easily, so us five really have to be together every time we step on the floor on defense.”
If Boyle has questions about the defense, answers can be found down the hall at JPJ.
“The men’s staff, as you all know, is just awesome,” she said. “They’ll watch film with me. They’ll break down my practice. They are very giving of their time with all the things that they have on their schedule.”
Of the 12 players on Boyle’s roster, four are freshmen: point guard Mikayla Venson, wing Aliyah Huland El and forwards Lauren Moses and Jae’Lisa Allen. The only seniors are forward Sarah Beth Barnette and Imovbioh, who sat out the 2011-12 season and is expected to compete as a graduate student in 2015-16.
Virginia opens the season Nov. 14 against Ohio State at JPJ.