Beating the Zone Part 1: Louisville and the high post

Dylan Burkhardt
2377814_G[1]Louisville was the last team to successfully dismantle the Syracuse zone. The Cardinals scored 56 points in the second half against Syracuse and finished the game scoring 1.20 points per possession. That was the second worst defensive performance of the season by Syracuse and could be a blueprint for teams looking to exploit the ‘Cuse zone.

I went back and watched film of the 27 offensive possessions that Louisville scored in the half court against Syracuse’s zone. The MVP for the Cardinals was definitely Gorgui Dieng who operated smoothly out of the high post – both passing and shooting (although his percentage for the day wasn’t great) – but Peyton Siva was also very impressive in teething his way into the zone.

I charted all 27 scoring possessions to see what offensive approaches worked best for the Cardinals. Fourteen of the scoring possessions came from the high post: either passes out of the post or elbow jump shots.

Play Type Count
High Post Kick 6
Offensive Rebound 6
Drive & Dump 4
Elbow Jumper 4
High Low 4
Assorted Foul 2
Alley-oop 1

After the jump we break down some of the sets that Louisville ran and what made them so effective.

High-Low Set

This is your basic high low set where the ball will be tossed into Gorgui Dieng in the middle of the zone. Dieng is an effective target because he’s so long that he can handle the high pass with ease but also pass or shoot over any defenders that come his way.


Next we’ll look at the options that Dieng has with the ball in this position.

Elbow Jumper

In this first example, the defender in the middle of the Syracuse zone stays at home, cutting off the potential drop off pass to the near block. That leaves Dieng to rise and fire from 16-feet. Dieng makes this shot early in the game and although he finished 3-of-11; just attempting these shots provides a threat.


Dump Down

After Dieng makes that 16-foot jump shot, the middle of the Syracuse zone reacts differently the next time he catches the ball high. This time you can see Rakeem Christmas step up to defend Dieng in the middle – well aware that he made his last jumper – and Dieng can easily drop the ball down to the short corner for a dunk.


Perimeter Collapse

Syracuse can also defend the high-post by collapsing from the top. On this set, Dieng catches the ball but the Orange make sure to take away the dump down. The far wing defender is helping down and the middle defender stays at home. Dieng isn’t open for a jump shot because Brandon Triche helps from the top.


Dieng reads the situation and kicks the ball back out to Peyton Siva at the top of the key. As Siva receives the ball,  the far wing defender is going to come roaring up to take away his jump shot, leaving Siva the perfect opportunity to make an extra pass for a wide open corner three.


Wing Collapses

Here’s another example where the far wing is helping down to take away the drop off. The wing help allows the central defender to step up and take away Dieng’s jumper but he shows patience and locates the help, kicking the ball to the wing for another open three.


The one thing you won’t see Louisville do is have the man in the high post put the ball on the floor and drive after he catches the ball. Attempting to drive, or get even get a closer shot, from the high post ruins the spacing that allows you to beat the zone. It never forces the middle defender to make a decision and allows him to stop the shot and the pass without moving. The man in the high post has to make a read – pass or shoot – and stick with it from in the mid range.

Two High

Louisville’s wrinkle to the high post look was putting two offensive players in the high post as targets rather than just one. This has the effect of stretching the entire Syracuse zone away from the basket.


This amounts to a simple high low pass, similar to the first look, but the difference is that the central defender is more likely to step up, given that he’s not aware of the offensive player on the block. That leaves the other high man with an easy backcut after Dieng catches the ball.


Dribble Penetration

While Dieng was a star, Peyton Siva was also very effective against the zone. The key for penetrating the zone is to find a gap at the top and get into that similar high post area. Here Siva does a great job of getting to the elbow and throwing a nice dump down drop off pass for an easy dunk.


For the dribble-drop off to be effective, Trey Burke has to be able to hit this shot below. Siva knocks this shot down which forces the ‘Cuse defense to respect it. image

That’s the shot that will force the big man to step up and leave the drop off open.

Alley-Oop Behind

Louisville also ran a great alley-oop play over the top of the zone. Notice Kevin Ware seemingly unaccounted for on the far wing.


Siva notices him as he cuts to the hoop and gets a wide open dunk.


Offensive rebounds and transition offense

Louisville scored 22 second chance points in this game and rebounded nearly 48% of its missed shots. Syracuse is a poor defensive rebounding team, allowing Big East opponents to rebound 36.6% of their missed shots, and Michigan will need to exploit this weakness. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III are both likely going to spend a lot of time around the basket and both players need to be aggressive crashing the glass.

Beyond offensive rebounds, Louisville also scored the ball on seven transition possessions, including a pair of made threes. Those unsettled situations will be critical for Michigan to exploit as they are not only a weakness of Syracuse, they are a Wolverine strength.

Bottom Line

Michigan doesn’t have a Gorgiu Dieng type threat in the high post. John Beilein’s common approach has been rotating just about everyone through the middle of the zone to create motion as they show for the pass. Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III all could be effective in the high post but none are a natural fit. Robinson or McGary are obviously great dump off, or back cut in Robinson’s case, guys while Hardaway isn’t nearly as tall as Dieng, making him a more difficult target.

There are also a lot of reads that need to be made in that area. Syracuse isn’t going to let anyone sit there, they are going to trap down in a number of different ways and force you to make a snap decision. The reason Syracuse is able to force so many turnovers is that it has tremendous length almost across the board. Recognizing the help on film is one thing but making the read on the floor and patiently making a pass through a trapping defense is something else.

A look with McGary and Robinson both in the high post could also be interesting. Both players not only have great chemistry with each other, they also have good ball skills and can finish at the rim. However, that’s also a lot to put on the shoulders of two freshmen in the teeth of a menacing zone.

It should also be noted that while everyone agrees that these strategies are effective, they don’t always work and replicating success against the Orange zone isn’t easy. On February 25th, Marquette scored 1.21 points per possession against Syracuse. That was the worst defensive performance of season for Boeheim’s team but last week Marquette mustered just 39 points on 54 possessions, .72 points per trip, its worst offensive night of the season.

Syracuse’s zone is locked in and has surrendered just 183 points in 253 NCAA tournament possessions, an astounding .72 points per trip.

  • Chazer

    Excellent analysis Dylan. This should be a great game and a difficult one to predict. Both teams have great athletic ability and are well coached. Blue has to hit the elbow jumper as you call it which means strong games by the wings. You would think this should play right into Michigan’s strength. They will need to shoot the ball well and get transition baskets to be effective.

    This zone is deceptive, cuse made Indiana and Cody Z look less than average. Cody Z looked very uncomfortable in the high post with the ball. Michigan’s talent is better suited but they still have to hit their shots.

    Not sure if spike gets alot of minutes if this becomes a half court game, but the kid is truly a player.

    Go blue!

  • Indiana_Matt

    “The one thing you won’t see Louisville do is have the man in the high post put the ball on the floor and drive after he catches the ball. Attempting to drive, or get even get a closer shot, from the high post ruins the spacing that allows you to beat the zone.”

    Was frustrating to watch IU try and do that over and over. And Crean really didn’t correct it.

    • mikey_mac

      The thing is, I actually think this can be effective in spots. The problem was, Zeller plays waayy shorter than he actually is when he puts the ball on the floor. He practically drags his ass on the floor while driving. McGary does not have this problem, and is actually probably a bit quicker to the hoop, so driving from the elbow against Fair feels like a viable option.

    • peterklima

      Yeah. I was going to log in here just to comment that Zelller must not have known this AT ALL. I think even the announcers were egging him on to just shoot it while he would try to drive. Maybe he expected the foul call or something?!?!

      • Adam St Patrick

        I think that’s just what Zeller does. His Plan A seems to be to put the ball on the floor and get a whistle. Most of the time he looks like he’s trying to cuddle.

  • Indiana_Matt

    Heard Mike Brey say that you gotta hit 8 threes to beat them. We can do it!

    • rlcBlue

      OK – then what do we do in the second half?

  • Salmaan Noor

    Nice breakdown.

    There has been a ton of talk of us going against the 2-3 zone but I’m curious as what are they keys to stopping Syracuse and specifically how we match up against them in the man to man.

    What are your thoughts on what the man to man assignments will be for us on defense? Specifically MCW. Obviously there’s a size issue with Burke and too athletic for Stauskas. Hardaway would be the ideal guy to guard but he will have to probably matchup with Sutherland. My guess is still Burke on MCW, Stauskas on Triche, Hardway on Sutherland (6th man but will of course play bulk of minutes), GR3 on Fair, and McGary against their big man (Christmas/Keita).



    • UM Hoops Fan

      I would guess McGary on Christmas/Keita, GRIII on Fair, Stauskas on Southerland, THJr on Triche, and Burke on MCW. Southerland, who’s been starting, shoots a high % of 3s, and I don’t see that being a bad match-up for Nik. As for the size issue, the key for MCW is keeping him out of the lane. If he’s shooting jumpers over Trey, that’s a win for us. I’m sure there’ll be lots of switching too. The keys: don’t let Southerland shoot open 3s; don’t let MCW penetrate; same for Triche, make them shoot jumpers; make Fair go to his off hand.

      • Cary Bear

        In my estimation, Stauskas is pretty bad with respect to chasing around shooters/fighting through screens. I think you switch THjr and Stauskas. I See southerland as a much more potent offensive threat and I think you have to put Thjr on him. Otherwise, I agree.

        • UM Hoops Fan

          I disagree on a couple points. First, Nik has done a pretty good job staying with shooters. Although there was a lot of switching, this was his role against VCU and Daniels, wasn’t it? Daniels went 1-9. He also stuck well with Byrd from PU, for example. Second, ‘Cuse seems to depend a lot more on Triche as a secondary guy after MCW to create offense. Triche scores more points and has 3 times more assists than Southerland. Slow down Triche and MCW and you’re halfway to stopping Southerland. But we’ll see. Michigan tends to switch a lot, so all players will have their shots against all of ‘Cuse’s guys.

          • rlcBlue

            I’m with you. Southerland is primarily a jump shooter – a very good one. Triche has an all-around game. If you put Stauskas on him, he will take him off the dribble. If you put Burke on him, he will post him up. I think Hardaway (or LeVert) on Triche will be necessary.

            I don’t think MCW is as likely to post up, and Burke definitely has the best chance to stay in front of him. You want to invite him to shoot from 3; he only hits 29% of them.

      • mikey_mac

        I’m almost inclined to think that Burke will guard Triche and THJ will take MCW, just because MCW has such a size advantage on Burke. Definitely think Stauskas is on Southerland. Nik just can’t be trusted with significant on-ball time.

  • MikeInOH

    Here’s a decent breakdown of what Indiana failed to do, courtesy of Inside the Hall..

    After watching that and reading this article, a few things Michigan needs to do:
    1) Hit the high post jumper. Dieng from Louisville and Gardner from Marquette (the first time) destroyed the zone from this spot. Zeller refused to take it.
    2) Seal the wing. Zeller does a terrible job at this on the site above. What this means is when the ball is in the high post looking to go high-low, the wing defender drops down to take that away. The short corner player must seal that wing off to get the ball. Horford cost himself a basket vs. Florida by not doing this. However, Mitch’s big body should be great at it.
    3) Bigs screen to get shooters open. Whenever the ball was being penetrated or rotated, Zeller was always concerned with sealing the center and getting the ball. Jordan Morgan, and hopefully Mitch, is great at screening the outside of the zone to get a wide open corner 3. Let’s see if Michigan can get easy looks for Nik by screening the bottom and outside of the zone.

  • UM Hoops Fan

    Great write up, thank you. Just curious — why is McGary not “a Gorgiu Dieng type threat?” Mitch is he’s a pretty big center with a pretty good elbow jump shot (maybe he hasn’t used it as much as Dieng, I don’t know), and a good passer. Perhaps Mitch isn’t as good as Dieng, but they seem to have a pretty similar skill set, especially insofar as playing this role in zone-busting.

    • He certainly could be… Would be a tough spot for him consistency wise I think.

      • peterklima

        Yeah, McGary’s decision-making has improved, but as a freshman that is a LOT to ask that your decision-making is the center point of the offense all game long.

        • Adam St Patrick

          Am of two minds. Instinctively I’m uncomfortable relying on McGary to make the right decisions. I think he’s at his best when he plays fast.

          But then again I think that really mostly applies to initiating his own offense in the post. We’ve seen him time and again this year can a quick jumper or make the right pass. Most of the time he’ll make the right pass.

          I can’t seem to recall right now, but when McGary has made jumpers this year, has there been a turn-and-shoot element involved or has he been mostly facing the basket?

    • mikey_mac

      McGary definitely has the skills. It’s more a matter of experience and patience that would probably make THJ, for example, a better option as the hub.

  • Northern Blue

    I think Beilein, the offensive mastermind will find ways to get his guys good looks against this zone, and will not replicate the mistakes that Crean did. Hopefully we find a way to get open 3 point shots, some baseline cuts for GR3, and some dump downs to McGary. In my opinion, Burke needs to not press too much, make the right play, try to get in the middle and kick it out to Stauskas/ Hardaway or drop it down behind the defence and take jumpers when they are there. Don’t want to see any of those long 3 pointers until late in the shot clock. Hopefully, there is also an emphasis of hurrying the ball down the court and seeing if we can get a quick bucket.

  • mikey_mac

    Excellent analysis. Syracuse has definitely been playing their zone at a high level recently, but it is not without exploitable holes. I think Boeheim is right to be concerned about UM’s zone-breaking weapons … Good 3-pt shooting, good offensive rebounding, Trey able to get past the front line off screen action, and THJ and McGary’s ability to sit in the middle and knock down 12- or 15-ft jumpers.

  • steve s

    In the Rothstein article about Beilein, something one of JB’s former players struck me as exactly what the Syracuse 2-3 will do. The player said that the JB 1-3-1 would react differently to different teams depending on that team’s offensive structure and most dangerous weapons. So looking at previous games of SU vs. Beilein would be most effective in determining how to attack it than looking at it vs. Lousiville. There’s no way SU will leave Stauskas alone in the corner as much as they did with the ‘Ville. GRIII might get some good looks from there, though.