Beating the Zone Part 1: Louisville and the high post

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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