What does Washington State's basketball coach have in common with his process for rebuilding a program? They both begin with D.
Dick Bennett took the job in Pullman with a plan to turn an historically mediocre basketball school into an annual contender, much like he did at Wisconsin in the mid-90s. He was aware that he wouldn't have much talent to work with in 2003-04, his first season, but he also knew that talent was not necessary for his famed pack-line defense. All he required was effort, obedience, and motivation.
The pack-line is an imaginary stripe that parallels the three-point arc, but is two feet closer to the basket. All defenders must stay inside the pack-line, except the one guarding the ball - he guards tightly with his hands raised high. When his man passes, he retreats inside the line and the closest man to the ball applies the pressure. The goal of the system is to stuff the lane, or at least provide that illusion, and prevent penetration and minimize easy looks at the basket. It was immediately successful at Washington State, as we'll see in a minute.
The 2002-03 Washington State team was about average in terms of tempo and offensive efficiency, but was terrible on defense. It was no surprise that they finished with records of 7-20 and 2-16.
Table Notes - Off Eff and Def Eff represent points scored and allowed (per 100 possessions), respectively
|Year||Poss/40||Off Eff||Def Eff|
Enter Bennett and the pack-line. The following year, seven of the team's top ten scorers were holdovers from the previous season, but the team looked much different. They were more patient on offense and implemented the coach's defensive system, which was a drastic improvement on the 2002-03 defense. The difference showed up in the win column, as well - the Cougars finished 13-16 and 7-11.
|Year One ||Poss/40||Off Eff||Def Eff|
The 2004-05 season, last year, allowed Bennett to leave even more of an imprint. He let a couple disinterested guys leave the program, then blended the remaining players (who had spent a year learning the system) with his own six-man recruiting class. The results were outstanding. Washington State made major improvements again and finished the season with the country's stingiest defense. Several of the freshmen struggled offensively, though, so the team only finished 12-16 and 7-11.
|Year Two ||Poss/40||Off Eff||Def Eff|
With the rebuilding now in Year Three, Bennett is probably about where he wants to be. He has one player remaining from the team he took over - the rest of his roster spots belong to freshmen and sophomores, and a couple of junior college transfers. Even without any top-shelf talent, his defense ranks second in the country (at the time of writing) to a surprising Iowa group. The offense is improving markedly with the maturation of last year's freshmen (though that only means they're back up to about the national average).
That offense is giving Washington State just enough power to hang with some of the country's better teams. They won at #13 Washington last weekend, and missed a layup at the buzzer last night that would've sent them to overtime with #11 UCLA (also on the road). They're currently 2-2 in the Pac-10 and in the middle of a tight conference race.
|Year Three ||Poss/40||Off Eff||Def Eff|
Bennett's defensive setup interests me for a couple reasons. First, obviously, is that he's been successful with it wherever he's gone, even with minimal talent. Second, his teams hold teams to low shooting percentages and force quite a few turnovers. It doesn't seem like many major conference teams can do both, at least not without major talent in both the frontcourt and backcourt. Here are WSU's main defensive numbers the past couple years.
|Year||eFG%||Nat'l Rk||TO%||Nat'l Rk|
With most of the roster around for at least another two years, Washington State should be winning more big games in the near future. Bennett's Wisconsin teams took off in his fourth and fifth years there, too. Those squads both won 20+ games, with the latter advancing to the Final Four.
What's impressive about Bennett's major conference coaching resume is that he's never even had an average defense. With teams averaging around 100 points per possession during the time, Bennett's Wisconsin teams put up the following marks -
For more (free) information on the pack-line defense, check out this article on Xavier's adaptation of the system. Also check out the super-cool video breakdown of what it looks like in action. It seems to be working well for Xavier so far; they ranked 133rd in Ken's defensive efficiency last year, but are up to 29th this season.