Mike Woodson’s question for a reporter seemed to be an honest one, not a veiled insult directed at his predecessor. Indiana’s new head coach simply did not know what a pack-line defense was.
Rick Bozich of WDRB in Louisville mentioned Archie Miller’s preferred system of defense — and the one Tony Bennett used to win a national title at Virginia in 2019 — to Woodson as part of a question about defense during a Zoom press conference with reporters Wednesday. It is apparently a term Woodson has heard on multiple occasions since coming to Indiana but one that wasn’t going around in his circles as an NBA coach.
“First of all, I’ve seen this pack line,” Woodson said. “What is that?”
Bozich explained that it’s a defense meant to pack the lane and stop dribble penetration but that it can leave teams vulnerable to the 3-point shot. Woodson seemed genuinely enlightened by the explanation.
“All right,” he said. “Now that I know that…”
Woodson proceeded to explain his own principles for defense. They aren’t in any way an indictment of pack-line principles or they’re not necessarily in conflict with them. However, they are less focused on the rim and the lane and more focused on the ball and putting pressure on the opponent who has it.
“Defensively we are going to try to be a hard-ass defensive team where we get after people and get stops and then rebound the ball and go try to have fun offensively,” Woodson said. “That’s kind of my mindset going in.”
Woodson has been involved in building great, and indeed hard-ass, defenses during his quarter century in NBA coaching. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons had one of the most hard-ass defenses of all-time, holding opponents to 84.3 points per game en route to an NBA title, and he served as an assistant coach under Larry Brown on that team.
Recreating that is hard to do without players like Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace, two of the best defensive players in the world at that time, and the game has changed to make it harder to defend at that level, both in the NBA and in college. However, Woodson wants a similar mindset starting with on-the-ball defense.
“The ball is the first and most important piece when you start building a defense, and somehow I got to get players to have pride in guarding the ball and not beg for help,” Woodson said. “That’s where it starts.”
Woodson’s first Indiana team will have strong on-ball defenders. Point guards Xavier Johnson and Rob Phinisee will both be entering their fourth years in college basketball and have proven solid at handing the point of attack. Johnson averaged 1.5 steals per game in his three seasons at Pittsburgh before his transfer. Phinisee isn’t as much of a gambler as Johnson perhaps in part due to the pack-line principles, but he averages 1.0 steals per game in his career and has drawn the assignment of the league’s top point guards since his freshman year and generally handled it well.
But Woodson also believes in switching on screens, having players who can defend multiple positions for the purpose of switching. And he believes in a fairly basic concept of man-to-man team defense.
“You got to put a system in place where if there is a break down you got to have help there and that helper has to have help and then the next man has to have help, so it becomes a team defense,” Woodson said. “I think great defensive teams, they work as a unit. Everybody is on a string, and when that damn ball goes up everybody is responsible for rebounding, so you can go and do what you do the other way.”
He likes the pieces he has to make that system work at this point. All-American center Trayce Jackson-Davis, who blocked 38 shots last season and averaged 9.0 rebounds per game, gives him an anchor in the paint and he has two centers behind him in South Florida transfer Michael Durr and incoming freshman Logan Duncomb. Forward Race Thompson has proven he can rebound and defend multiple positions. The shooting guard and small forward spots are the most up-in-the-air positions on the roster, but freshmen Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal and incoming freshman Tamar Bates all have strong defensive reputations at those spots in various ways and Galloway was particularly strong on defense in his first year.
“There is a lot of pieces in place that I got to put in because I’m very picky when it comes to defending, but it all goes hand in hand,” Woodson said. “Great defensive teams learn to protect the paint and they learn to get out to shooters. It’s all about effort and putting forth just the will to defend. It ain’t going to be perfect. … There is going to be lot of things moving forward with this team. Again, they don’t know me and I don’t know them yet. Just by watching on film. That’s why I’m so excited about getting them together and getting to work.”
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