Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Breaking the Zone Defense

The one major difference in College Basketball and the NBA is the defensive methods.  The zone defense is very popular in college, but the jump to the pros also includes a change in rules, not allowing that defender inside the paint without an offensive player there.  The best zone defense in college has been the Syracuse Orangemen, who happened to lose to Pittsburgh last night.  The Panthers did something no other team could do this year, and that is break the Syracuse zone.  Many qualities are necessary for a team to score on the zone efficiently, including smart passing, good outside shooting, and solid ball handling.  

Syracuse's defense forces teams to settle for shots they do not want to take.  For instance, on Saturday, Syracuse played Cincinnati and held them to 52 points.  Cincinnati took 28 three pointers, making them at a 39% rate, which results in 33 points.  33 points on 28 shots is a very efficient result for Cincinnati, but the Bearcats shot 7 of 31 from inside the arc.  That is absolutely awful.  Many of the shots taken were tough opportunities with either a hand in the face or two defenders close by.  In another instance, against St. John's last week, Syracuse held them to 19 of 45 from inside the arc.  That is a lot better than what Cincinnati shot, but St. John's was only 2-12 from three point range.  These stats are both coming from teams that average over 70 points a game and are mid tier Big East programs.

So here's the question, how is Syracuse so good on defense?  A good zone defense starts with players that know their role. The Orangemen have bought into Jim Boeheim and his defensive scheme.  Intelligence is another  important factor, as they all are aware of what to do in every scenario.  This comes after a ton of practice and great coaching.  Syracuse's speed allows them to rotate effectively, eliminating driving lanes.  The combination of speed and strength, allows the defense to get to perimeter shooters and contest the shots.  Additionally, this skill is also shown through their ability to swarm the ball in the paint, forcing tough shots and difficult passing lanes.  Their length is one of their biggest attributes, as many teams claim that the Syracuse zone runs from sideline to sideline, because of their height and quickness.

Putting all this together, makes it one of the most efficient defenses in the country.  Last night however, Pittsburgh defeated the zone and finally handed the Orangemen their first loss.  First and foremost, Pittsburgh presents the most complete offense that Syracuse has played all season, but they outsmarted Syracuse in a huge Big East battle.  Pitt started the game on a 19-0 run, putting Syracuse in a hole early in the game.  Coach Jamie Dixon knew exactly how to defeat the zone and it all started by him informing his team of the statistics against Syracuse.  Opponents shoot 28% from three point range, so he told his team to be smart about shot selection.  Furthermore, he emphasized the necessity to get the ball inside. 

“The key thing in zones is getting inside touches,” said Pitt’s Nasir Robinson, who scored the game’s first nine points, all of them inside. “It opened up a lot because you suck the defenders in and then the outside opens up.”  As a Syracuse Basketball blog pointed out, Pitt was simply tougher than Syracuse last night.  They rebounded well, despite their lack of height down low.  

So the key to beating the Syracuse is to feed the ball inside the paint and to make sure that these passes are delivered with precision.  Once a Syracuse player gets his hand on the ball, that's when turnovers are created.  By getting the inside touches, stressed by Jamie Dixon, opponents are able to infiltrate the zone, making it harder for the zone to rotate to open shooters.  Most importantly, by being patient, the zone can be broken with intelligent deciphering.  The moment opponents start settling for deep three pointers and contested jump shots, is the time when Syracuse can use its skills to its' advantage..

We will be able to see this functional zone on Saturday night vs. Villanova, as both teams look to bounce back after losses to top ten, Big East foes.  

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