March 11, 2015

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Pack Line defense for which UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett is known — a lane-clogging man-to-man scheme devised by his father, Dick — relies less on individual brilliance than on five players working as one.

“It really is a system,” Tony Bennett said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “It’s a team defensive system. Guys won’t look good unless all parts are working.”

For most of this season, all parts have worked for third-ranked Virginia. The Cavaliers (28-2) lead the nation in scoring defense at 50.3 ppg, the third-lowest average in the shot-clock era of college basketball. Three times UVa has held its opponent under 30 points this season.

Offense is fun, but defense “is more important,” redshirt junior Malcolm Brogdon said Monday, “because without stops, you can’t win a game, you can’t win championships, and that’s what this system prides itself on. As Virginia basketball players we have to focus more on our defense, because that’s what Coach Bennett stresses.”

UVa, the defending champion, is seeded No. 1 in the ACC tournament, which began Tuesday at the Greensboro Coliseum. In the noon quarterfinal Thursday, Virginia will face No. 8 seed Clemson or No. 9 seed Florida State.

Not every Cavalier is a lockdown defender, and the Pack Line, when executed correctly, can cover up individual flaws. Still, Virginia has its share of defensive standouts, and those players’ excellence was recognized this week.

In voting among the conference’s head coaches, Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, was named the ACC’s co-defensive player of the year, along with Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas. Brogdon and Virginia’s Anthony Gill, a 6-8 redshirt junior, were chosen by the coaches for the ACC’s all-defensive team.

The Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association announced its all-star selections this week, too, and the group named Atkins and Brogdon to its All-ACC defensive team.

ACSMA honored Virginia’s Darion Atkins as ACC defensive player of the year.

“I’m happy for D.A.,” junior swingman Justin Anderson said. “That’s crazy good.”

Atkins said: “It means a lot. It’s a big achievement, a big goal of mine. I didn’t really think anything about it. I didn’t really expect it. I just played as hard as I could this year and I got the award. I’m really happy for it, and I’m grateful.”

A 6-8 senior from Clinton, Md., Atkins leads the Wahoos in blocked shots (31) and steals (26), and he’s done so while avoiding foul trouble. He’s second on the team in rebounding (5.9 per game).

“He’s just so active, and he gets off the floor so quickly,” said center Mike Tobey, a 7-0 junior whom the ACC coaches named the conference’s sixth man of the year.

“He really can move like a guard defensively. It’s impressive to watch. He’s just so versatile on defense, which is what makes him great.”

In 2013-14, when the Cavaliers swept the ACC titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, their defensive anchor was 6-8 Akil Mitchell. With Mitchell gone this season, Bennett challenged Atkins to fill that role.

Mitchell and Atkins are “probably more similar than different,” Tobey said. “I think the one thing that D.A. has is, he’s a little bit longer than Akil and can get off the floor so quickly. It’s kind of hard to explain, but going against him every day, it definitely makes a difference.”

A shin injury hindered Atkins in 2012-13. Then, as a junior, he averaged only 10.4 minutes per game in a crowded frontcourt that included Mitchell, Gill and Tobey. But Atkins’ patience has been rewarded this season. He’s started 23 games.

Atkins’ career “has kind of been up and down,” Bennett said, but “then this year, when he really established himself, I think he settled in and realized, `I can help this team. They need me.’

“When a player understands, `This team needs me to play at a high level for us to be really good,’ I think that does wonders for your sense of worth and your leadership, all those things. I think that’s started happening.

“That’s maturity. It really is. Sometimes it comes quicker for some guys. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. [Or] it comes late. For him to see it happen in his last year, and then even be recognized for it in the regular season, that has been good.”

Brogdon said: “I think when people go through college they mature and their mindset changes, and I think that’s what you’ve seen with Darion in the past two years, and I think he’s just gotten better and better.”

Gill, who transferred to UVa from South Carolina after the 2011-12 season, has always been a gifted offensive player. To be recognized for his defense, Gill said Monday, is a blessing.

“I was not expecting it at all,” Gill said of his selection to the coaches’ All-ACC defensive team. “I never would have thought I would get this award.”

His teammates weren’t as surprised. Tobey said Gill, who leads the team in rebounding, has improved dramatically at the defensive end.

“He actually is a really good defender for us,” Tobey said. “He might not say he believes that he deserved it, but everyone else on the team does.”

The Pack Line is not easy to master, as Gill can attest, and defensive breakdowns were common for him in 2012-13, his redshirt year, and early last season. But Gill’s commitment to defense has paid dividends this season.

“I really focused in on it,” Gill said. “I wanted to get better at it, because last year at the beginning of the year I was horrible on defense, and it was a struggle for me, and I told myself I didn’t want to go through that again. I didn’t want my defense to be the reason why I couldn’t be on the court. So I really decided to just put it into playing defense.”

Brogdon, a chiseled 215-pounder, forms an imposing barrier on defense, and he’s capable of shutting down other elite guards.

That’s a credit to Brogdon, Bennett said, as well as to “a lot of the guys behind him. When all the pieces are working well together, that’s when we’ve been at our best. But to see some of these guys get some individual acknowledgment for their hard work is great. So I’m thankful for that, to see that many people get mentioned [in All-ACC voting].”

Of the players in Virginia’s frontcourt rotation the past two seasons, only Tobey has not been recognized for his defensive prowess. But there’s always next season for No. 10.

“We’ll see,” Tobey said, laughing. “We’ll see about that.”

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