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Defense is the Pelicans problem, Tony Bennett is the answer

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Want a guy with head coaching experience? Championships in the toughest conference? A knack for defensive excellence? Boxes all checked.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans are currently in the top ten in offensive efficiency rating and the bottom ten in defensive efficiency rating. The offense, much maligned, is hardly the issue in New Orleans. They can score points, the problem is they can't consistently stop anyone.

Last season's aggressive hedge and rotation scheme, predicated on blitzing the ball handler in pick and roll, failed miserably. New Orleans finished 26th in defensive efficiency while posting a 107.3 defensive efficiency rating. This season that number has improved to 104.5 but the league rating lags behind at 22nd.

Initially I wanted to advocate for Fred Hoiberg as the next Pelicans head coach. He has been extremely successful at Iowa State and has an NBA background both as a player (he led the NBA in three point percentage in his final season, shooting 48.3%) and an assistant coach and executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2005-2010. He isn't what the Pelicans need though. His teams are terrible on defense. Again, offense isn't the problem.

The "Pack Line"

One college coach, also with playing experience in the NBA, is a defensive stalwart. Tony Bennett has been the coach at Virginia for six seasons. In three of the past four seasons his teams have ranked in the top six in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. This despite lacking the kind of NBA talent found at other ACC basketball factories like Duke, North Carolina, or Louisville.

The basis of all this is the "Pack Line" defense, originally created by Tony Bennett's father. Grantland took a deep dive into the defense earlier in the season. Here is an excerpt from that piece.

Everything that Tony’s Virginia team does defensively stems from this concept of middle help, including its pick-and-roll defense. While it’s become more popular to "down," forcing pick-and-roll ball handlers toward the sideline or baseline, Tony’s teams, per the system’s rules, still allow them to head toward the middle of the floor. Doing otherwise would compromise the integrity of the defense, even if strategies like "downing" screens on the ball may be more effective in a vacuum.

"What you do has to fit. So many NBA teams, they ‘ice’ or they ‘down’ the side ball screen — college teams, too — but they do that because they play to the sideline and have their help all down there," Tony says. "But the way you play the post should match how you play on the perimeter. Your footwork, your positioning, it all has to fit together, and it sets you up to be more successful."

Because of this systemwide cohesion, teams that play Virginia essentially run into a mirage-like force field designed to both invite and then shield the ball from the paint. Just ask Harvard, which could muster only 27 points (yes, in a full game) against the Cavaliers in late December. When executed to perfection, Tony’s scheme produces lots of possessions that look like this:

Shield the ball from the paint? This would be a welcome change for the Pelicans, who allow the most shots in the restricted area league-wide. Take a look at the defensive efficiency of Bennett coached teams and compare it to John Calipari. Note that Calipari has had a talent advantage every season and plays in a significantly weaker conference. Adjusted defensive rating comes from KenPom with the national ranking in parenthesis.

Virginia Kentucky
2012 89.1 (6) 89.9 (8)
2013 91.7 (24) 99.1 (129)
2014 90.1 (5) 96.9 (41)
2015 86.4 (2) 85.6 (1)

Talent Gap

Let's talk about that talent gap for a second, because it is massive. CBS Sports took a look at it early in the season when Kentucky, Duke, and Virginia were the top three teams in the county.

The first team listed (Kentucky) has 10 former top-50 247Sports recruits, nine McDonald's All-Americans and nine of the top 65 NBA prospects in the world, according to DraftExpress.com. So it's simple to see why the Wildcats are great. The second team listed (Duke) has eight former top-50 247Sports recruits, nine McDonald's All-Americans and three of the top 20 NBA prospects in the world, according to DraftExpress.com. So it's also simple to see why the Blue Devils are great.

And then there's Virginia.

Number of former top-50 recruits: Zero

Number of McDonald's All-Americans: Zero

Number of projected future first-round picks: Zero

Despite the obvious and overwhelming talent disparity it is Virginia, not Duke, who has won the last two regular season championships in the ACC.

Slow Pace

In order to compensate for a lack of talent the Cavaliers play a very slow brand of basketball. In pace they are one of the slowest in all of college basketball, not even ranking in the top 300 in any of the last four seasons. So slow this year that the HOTTAKE CANNON over at ESPN had to ask if the slow pace was bad for the game of college basketball. Tony Bennett's response in the Washington Post showed he could care less.

"You can’t control what people think," Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said Wednesday during his weekly radio show. "The opinions of others do not matter. We’re trying to play as good as we can. I’ve talked about this before; that’s the beauty of college basketball — there’s different styles. There’s not a cookie-cutter style. This is not the NBA. We don’t have the NBA talent and you win different ways. That’s one man’s opinion, maybe it’s a lot of people’s opinion, but we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing to the best of our abilities and try and be successful. That’s what matters. I can’t get too wrapped up in that."

This method is not unique to his time at Virginia. While head coach at Washington State the Cougars ranked 323rd, 335th, and 340th in pace nationally.

Mover Blocker Offense

The good folks at Basketball Breakdown went deep on Virginia's offensive and defensive systems earlier this season. This is a long read, but one chock full of videos and diagrams to explain exactly what the team does on both sides of the ball. Take a look at the link.

Do Bennett teams score a lot of points? Of course not; they cannot at such a slow deliberate pace. Do they score efficiently? Yes. 21st in offensive efficiency in 2014 and 25th in 2015.

Will any of this work in the NBA? Does Bennett want to move up?

This is the hardest question to answer. A defensive system forcing the ball into the middle towards help works well in college where shooters are less efficient and oftentimes have sundial-slow releases. The three point arc is deeper in the NBA, the pack-line would need to be further out. This creates larger gaps to attack inside the defense while the threat of kick outs turning into points is far more dangerous.

More importantly than if any of this would work in the NBA (or if Bennett could adapt his systems) is if Bennett would have any desire to move to the NBA. While he spent some time in the NBA he is a college guy, the son of a college coach, through and through. Bennett could move up to the NBA, or he could become a legend at Virginia with a statue and possibly the court named after him. Job stability for Bennett (or any roundly successful college coach, Hoiberg also qualifies) plummets when going from the NCAA to the NBA.

There are some coaches driven to "prove" they can do the job at the highest level. While Bennett checks nearly every box the Pelicans need, he might not have the desire to coach in the NBA whatsoever.

If he does, Tony Bennett is worth a look.