Xavier’s pack-line defense and coaching continuinty

In the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve got a long profile of Xavier head coach Chris Mack. On this blog, I’ve already tried to substantiate my claim that Xavier’s brawl had been “a long time coming.” Now, I’d like to write about Xavier’s defensive identity — and about the way such identities can owe as much to previous coaches as to the current one. I think this dynamic is one of the most interesting (and overlooked) things about college basketball, a sport where everyone is always on the move. When I interviewed Sean Miller, he talked about how an assistant, once he assumes a program’s top spot, needs to maintain continuity while also making it his own. Of Mack, his former assistant, Miller said: “Chris has done a great job, from my vantage point, of doing both.”

Mack also had nice things to say about his former boss. (“He’s one-hundred percent basketball,” Mack said. “He doesn’t have any other interests. I feel bad for him.”) One place where Mack’s emphasized continuity is Xavier’s defense, which continues to deploy a man-to-man scheme known as “the pack-line defense.”

In Miller’s first season as head coach (and Mack’s first as his top assistant), Xavier ran a number of different defenses, depending on match-ups, in-game strategy, and so on. But this meant Xavier didn’t develop much of a defensive identity, and for that reason Miller spent most of his first offseason watching film of — and making phone calls to — the sport’s best defensive coaches. Eventually, Miller decided Xavier would become a pack-line team, emphasizing the scheme’s principles and philosophy at every opportunity. He brought in a new assistant, James Whitford, to help with the transition. Whitford had played for Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett and coached for Miami’s Charlie Coles, both of whom favored sticky, lane-clogging defenses. In other words, Whitford also offers an example of coaching continuity, and he’s now Miller’s top assistant at Arizona.

So, what is the pack-line defense? I asked Mack for a layman’s definition, and this is what he said:

It’s a defense that stresses keeping the ball out of the lane, being a team that doesn’t get spread out defensively, that isn’t denying in the passing lanes, that isn’t taking chances and trying to make the game chaotic, that’s more worried about keeping the ball in front of them. We want to have a little more organization to us on the defensive end. We want to make sure every shot you take is outside of the lane and is contested.

If you read my profile, you’ll see why this scheme appeals to the hyper-organized Mack. The pack-line defense still demands intense individual defense — “We’re going to pressure the ball really hard,” Mack says — but it forces the other players to think about their positioning. “I came to believe in the pack-line defense because it gave answers,”  Mack says. The players knew what they needed to do, the coaches knew what they needed to teach, and the team knew how it could get better. In fact, Basketball Prospectus has demonstrated that Xavier’s defense got better every single year under Miller. Mack remembers Miller’s final 2009 Xavier team that made the Sweet 16: “We were so doggone good on defense. We weren’t the most talented team, but we had kids who’d been in the system three or four years, who knew how to defend.”

You can see, then, why Mack wanted to keep the pack-line defense — and why that continuity between Coach Miller and Coach Mack mattered. “I was teaching a system, as an assistant, that I completely bought into,” Mack told me.

One final point: this is not to say that all coaches are the same, or even similar. In fact, Mack and Miller couldn’t be more different in terms of personality, if not intensity. All the info in this post came from my interview with Mack. I asked Miller the exact same questions, and here’s what I got: “The pack-line defense was my contribution.” That’s it. Even when I asked about Mack’s role in defensive gameplans, Miller stayed terse: “He contributed, in my mind, to every aspect in the development of our program.”

So while coaches may share strategy and tactics, they remain different people, and those differences surely inform their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I’d planned to ask Thad Matta about the relationship between him and Miller at Xavier, but, in an outcome that will surprise very few Xavier fans, he ignored my multiple requests. Matta, it seems, had completely moved on.


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