USA Today Sports, Brian Spurlock

Analyzing the Archie Miller 'pack-line' defense: Part 1 - Defending Ball Screens

The Dayton Flyers have been on the nation's best defensive teams the last three reasons. Today we help you find out why by bringing you the first of a three-part analysis by Scout's Brian Snow on the main concepts of the "pack-line" defense. Both Sean and Archie Miller have employed it to great success in their coaching careers.

There have been a lot of questions recently on the board about the Indiana defense might change or how it may look in new coach Archie Miller’s "pack-line" approach.

Keep in mind a "pack-line" defense is just a variation of the man-to-man defense that most Hoosier fans have seen their teams play going back to the Bob Knight era.

Having worked with his brother Sean on the Arizona staff, no surprise that Archie Miller's Dayton teams have employed the pack-line. It has been very successful and likely a big reason that Indiana decided to tab Archie Miller yesterday as the program's new coach.

Over the last three seasons the Dayton Flyers have fielded a defense that has ranked among the top 40 nationally. In 2015-16 the Flyers were No. 15 nationally in defensive efficiency.

You can see all of Archie Miller's offensive and defensive efficiency numbers in the Archie Miller coaching profile

When Sean Miller was hired at Arizona, national recruiting analyst Brian Snow put together the analysis below on the pack-line. Snow began his media career covering Xavier in the Cincinnati area where he grew up. That has allowed him some unique, first-hand insight on how both the Millers approach team defense.

Here is Part One of that analysis written in 2009. Two more parts will follow.

Pack-line Defense: Defending Ball Screens

By Brian Snow (2009)

The first thing is I don’t want people thinking the pack-line is like re-inventing the wheel. It is a defense run by A LOT of schools all across the country. Of course each coach has a slight tweak here or there, but for the most part it is virtually the same. Xavier, Arizona, Butler, Virginia, etc. they all basically run the same defense. While it is complex in some ways, it isn't the most unbelievable system to grasp, like any defensive system, it just takes reps.

Here are things to pay attention to as general rules of what to look for during games. I will start with one of the most difficult aspects of defense, defending a high ball screen… 

WARNING this will get technical. If some of it doesn’t make sense let me know and I will do a better job of trying to explain it.

So much of offense right now in college basketball is run off of ball screen action at the top or on the wing. Some choose to defend ball screens differently deepening on personnel, but with very rare exceptions Arizona always does the same thing when defending ball screens.

The first thing to notice is that in the defensive system you ALWAYS as a guard make your man use the screen. Never, ever should a guard allow his man to “reject” the ball screen and go the opposite way of where the screen is coming from. If this happens not only will the guard be coming out of the game real quickly, but also he will be giving up an open shot or a layup. The defense is not designed to allow ball screen rejects, and if it happens, the results are typically not good.

Arizona is not a team that switches ball screens. A switch of a ball screen will never happen when a big is screening for a guard. If it is a guard to guard or wing to guard ball screen, OCCASIONALLY there will be a switch, but in general that is not the ideal way to play the defense.

As a guard being screened, you always fight over the ball the screen. This means you try to get between the man setting the screen and the man with the ball and get through the screen that way. By doing this it takes away the three point shot off the screen from the guard, at least in theory if done properly.

Sometimes you will see teams go under a screen, running underneath the man screening and then trying to get a hand up to challenge the shot, or simply switch the screen, but that is not supposed to happen in this defense. If the guards are going under screens that means they are screwing up. It is the job of a guard to fight over the screen and get to his man.

On only two occasions can I remember Sean Miller coached teams going under ball screens when he was at Xavier. One was Mike Conley Jr. because not only was he not a good shooter, but trying to fight over the ball screen against them was exactly what Ohio State wanted, and it was impossible to do, and defend that way. The other was London Warren at Dayton who had as much chance of making a three pointer as me getting a date with Megan Fox. Because of that you should almost never see guards going under ball screens.

The big guys whose man is setting the ball screen have a big responsibility as well. Ideally, and this is more likely for an athletic kid like Derrick Williams than say a guy like Alex Jacobson or Kyryl, the big guy will jump the ball screen. In essence that means a hard hedge where the guard has to go away from the rim and it allows the guy being screened to fight over the top and recover.

The other possibility for a big guy is that they “own” the ball screen. This means guarding the guard as if it is his man with ball pressure while the guy who was screened fights over the top and recovers in time to then guard his original man.

Where it can get tricky and technical and look weird to people who don’t see it on a daily basis, is if the guy setting the ball screen “slips the screen”. This in essence means he acts like he is setting the screen, but instead of doing it he cuts to the basket or fades to shoot a perimeter jumper.

Even if a screener slips the screen, the defense calls for it to be treated like a ball screen. That means the guard goes over the top of the screener and the big guy jumps it forcing the guard away from the basket. If this happens correctly, even if that man slipping the screen is open, in theory the guard should not be able to get him the ball.

What that does is it creates the need for help. The help is supposed to come from the man on the baseline, or lowest on the court, who is defending on the same side as the screener moves to. Sometimes it is a power forward sometimes a small forward, honestly it doesn’t matter. That man who is in help off the ball in the ball screen defense has to be two places at once.

To make it easy, he has to split the difference between his man and the man who is rolling off the high screen, in essence being responsible for both guys while the big guy is sprinting to recover. While in the process of getting back into the play, the help guy and the big guy who is recovering off the screen have to communicate. Sometimes the help guy will go back to guarding his original man, sometimes he will switch and the big guy will guard the help defenders man if it is closer and the situation presents itself in that way.

The final thing I will say is a dribble hand-off and a ball screen are treated differently. On a dribble hand-off, where one guy dribbles to another and hands him the ball, in Arizona’s defense you go under that because the guy receiving the hand-off will not be able to shoot it over the top simultaneously of his guy while receiving the hand-off giving the defender going under a chance to be there and recover in plenty of time. So if occasionally it looks like a guy is going under a ball screen, it is probably a dribble hand-off. On TV sometimes it is tough to tell the difference depending on the angle.

Overall this is why it is so tough to defend ball screens in college basketball. Even with hard and defined rules such as the ones Arizona has, it can be tough as the offense gets an advantage and as a defense you have to absolutely be on your game to defend them properly with communication between all the players on the floor.


Coming soon: Part 2: Defending Screens Away from the Ball and Part 3: Defending the Post


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