LYNCHBURG — Watching basketball has gotten progressively less fun for Ryan Kemrite over the past three years. The senior guard is the only player on Liberty’s roster that got there before head coach Ritchie McKay three years ago. He wasn’t recruited by him. He wasn’t given the pitch. He’s seen a Flames team lose 24 games and rank among the nation’s worst defenses.
And he’s seen the contrast, the gradual uphill climb in the years that followed. McKay came back to Liberty for his second stint as head coach and brought with him UVa’s patented Pack Line defense. He brought the game tape, the strategy, and the wealth of knowledge passed down to him through Tony Bennett and his father, Dick Bennett.
When Kemrite says watching basketball is no longer fun, it’s because all he sees is the defense. The little mistakes and breakdowns across all styles and teams. It’s been so engrained into his brain, he says, that he’s trained to look for it.
“I could see things in film or live that I would have never dreamed of seeing in my first year in the pack,” Kemrite said. “I can’t enjoy any basketball games any more. … I am a defensive savant and I hate it.”
When he speaks like that, it’s somewhat facetious. After all, Kemrite is the only player from the 2014 freshman class to still play on the team. Nearly every contributing player from the 2014-15 team was not on next year’s roster, which featured six freshmen and a Bradley transfer.
McKay had coached Liberty in 2008 and 2009, and had previously been the head coach at Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State and New Mexico. He coached the Pack Line defense, or at least what he thought at the time was the Pack Line. When Tony Bennett took the job at Virginia in 2009, he made McKay his top assistant. After six years on the job, McKay went back to Liberty with a better understanding of how to replicate that defensive strategy at a mid-major program.
Now in his third season since returning to Lynchburg, the Flames are putting together their strongest defensive season. LU (12-6, 3-2 Big South) hasn’t allowed more than 76 points in a game all season. Eight times, they’ve held opponents under 60 points. Watch the games; it’s a replica version of Virginia basketball, which also took until its third season under Bennett to show signs of success.
“I think the longer you have this implemented in your program, the better your guys are going to get in it,” McKay said. “I watched it first-hand unfold at UVa. … Mind you, when I was a head coach before coming to work with Tony, I tried to do the pack. I had a class in the pack. Having been there six years, I got a Masters degree in the pack.”
When McKay first got to Liberty, he showed his new team a lot of game tape on Virginia. He also brought other former UVa assistants Brad Soucie and Vic Sfera. In that first season, they only had eight scholarship players.
During the first two seasons, McKay said he doubted if the Pack Line would translate to Liberty. He didn’t see immediate success. The Flames were 13-19 in the first year and 21-14 a season later. Both seasons, the Flames lost in the first round of the Big South Tournament. The defense was good, but never dominant.
In the very first possession of Friday night’s game against Longwood, the Lancers used up all 30 seconds of the shot clock before a contested fade-away 3-pointer. It looked eerily similar to many a defensive stand for a program one hour north.
“I am really happy for Ritchie and a lot of those guys that were with us are there now,” Bennett said. “He’s a heck of a coach. When I watch, it’s ‘Yup, they’re trying to play good, hard-nosed defense.’ They look like they’re a really good team and he’s done a good job in a short amount of time.”
Part of the defensive success this season has to do with defensive rebounding. The Flames are the second-best in the country in that category. Kemrite said he’s noticed a difference the character of players that get recruited to Liberty. Higher character, he says, higher buy-in for a tougher defense. There’s no time to rest in this defense, he says, even when you’re not guarding a player with the ball.
Everything is counter-intuitive to the defense one played before the Pack Line. The drills associated with learning it might seem simple — handing the ball off and quickly closing out, over and over again. But learning it fully has clearly been a longer, years-long process. Those drills establish defensive habits, and that’s where the foundation of the Pack Line lies.
“It is so wrongly criticized because people don’t understand it,” McKay said. “The reason the tempo of the games are so low for teams that play the pack, it’s because, if you’re doing it right, you’re hard to score against.”
Kemrite has his own personal nickname for UVa basketball.
“I call Virginia ‘Daddy,’” he said.
It’s apt in the sense that Virginia fathered the style of defense that Liberty has made the backbone of its program. The Cavaliers have run roughshod through their entire schedule, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 15-1 record, again putting their outstanding defense into the national spotlight.
And down Route 29 is a smaller program, with less experience, less talent, and less pedigree that’s building its program on the same principals. And it’s just beginning to see that effort pay off.
“It’s amazing to see, the longer you’re in the system, you get the nuances more and more,” Kemrite said. “… It takes so much time. It’s like, if you’re not fully committed, you don’t run it right, it just gets punched.”