Sean's Scout: Illini should 'pack' it in

Illini Inquirer basketball analyst Sean Harrington suggests a defensive shakeup to help Illinois win more battles in the paint

Illinois found a way to pull out back-to-back wins by four points each. The winning margin is not the only similarity between the two games.

The statistics both games were very similar. The Illini were outrebounded in both games (23 Yale, 10 UIC). In both games the Illini were outscored 32-24 on points in the paint.

The absences of Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black have a huge impact on both these stats. Thorne’s return is not coming anytime soon. Black is day-to-day, but this could be an injury that stays with him most of the season. Let's take a look at how the Illini move forward with two of their top big men -- and two elite rebounders -- out.  

The Illini must find a way to control the paint better, the team's biggest problem right now. Giving up 9.4 made three pointers a game also is an issue. But if they can control the paint, the made threes might go down as well and here is a way to do this.  

One option would be to go to a “pack-line” defense.  

This has been successful for the Bennett family, first at Wisconsin (under Dick Bennett), then at Washington State (under Dick and Tony Bennett, Dick's son) and now at Virginia (under Tony). The main purpose of this defense is to keep the ball out of the lane and keep it on the perimeter.  

The player guarding the ball would apply pressure while the other four players stay inside the three-point arc to protect the lane. Ideally, the ball handler will see a help defender to his right and left when he has the ball on the top or high wing areas.The ball handler would be looking at three defenders (ball defender and two help defenders). This would make that offensive player have to beat essentially two defenders to get into the lane. This helps slow down the drive that would hopefully keep the Illini from helping and recovering.  

By eliminating the hold and recover, this would eliminate some of the rotations that lead to giving up offensive rebounds. In the pack defense, the four defenders off the ball should have inside position to go and get the defensive rebounds. The “pack-line” is designed to make teams beat you from the outside (shooting threes), which has been an issue for Illinois.  

However, the “pack” is inside the arc, and when it is working well, the help defender is in a stationary position. So when the ball handler drives and kicks, the help defender waits for the driver and only moves when closing out to the shooter -- instead of coming in to stop the drive and then moving out to the shooter. It eliminates one extra movement, allowing the help defender to close out to the shooter quicker and better. The defense gives up contested threes and hoping the opponent doesn’t make enough to beat you.  

The goal of the pack is to eliminate paint touches from the drive and keep your players in a good position to rebound. The defense gives up the perimeter jumpers with the hope that the opponent doesn’t make enough contested jumpers. Groce calls this trade off "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The "pack-line" principles and concepts are not super complicated. This is a system that can be added to a program -- even one that relies on several freshmen -- with just a few days of practice. However, just like anything it will take some time to become very good at it and over time you can incorporate more rules and variations. But right now, this base defense can be put in and be effective and help the Illini with some of the issues they are having defensively.

The Illini need to figure out a way to control the paint. They have had a hard time keeping drivers out of the lane, stopping point scoring and keeping teams off the boards.

By going to a “pack-line” defense, Illinois will keep the drive under control and keep its players in good rebounding position and eliminate some of the help and recover situations. The “pack-line” defense does give up threes, but you are playing the percentages that the shooter will not make enough contested threes to beat you.  

Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.

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