Beating the Zone Part 2: Ball Screens

Dylan Burkhardt

There’s been a lot of talk about the high post in beating Syracuse’s 2-3 zone – this site included –  but look for Michigan to stick to one of the things that it knows best when facing Syracuse on Saturday: the ball screen. Ball screening a zone isn’t necessarily conventional but it can be very effective at getting Trey Burke into weak spots of the Syracuse defense.

Michigan faced Eastern Michigan earlier this season and the Eagles, who are coached by seven year Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, ran the same defensive system as Syracuse. Michigan scorched Eastern Michigan, partially due to the obvious gap in talent, and was extremely effective at ball screening the zone. In the following examples we look at a multitude of ball screen looks that opened up the Eastern Michigan zone. Obviously these strategies work more effectively against Eastern Michigan than Syracuse, but they are worth examining because the defensive principles are so similar.

We’ll start with a classic ball screen against the zone. Here you can see McGary screen the near side top defender, who tries to fight over the screen. The possible outcomes are similar to any other ball screen but the key is that Burke demands the attention of two players at once. The following scenarios all result from a similar ball screen look that Michigan fans are very familiar with.



Burke can drive the ball all the way to the hoop, as we see here and finish at the rim. This is probably the least ideal option as Syracuse has great shot blockers at the rim but it also keeps the defense honest.


Cut Behind

When Burke gets into the mid section of the zone, he demands the attention from almost everyone in the zone. Michigan loves to run back cuts along the far baseline for an easy look. Here are three examples:




Pull Up Three

In this example, one defender tries to go under the ball screen leaving the defender on the other side of the top to rush over to help. Because the original defender is tangled up with McGary, Burke has an easy pull up three pointer.



This is the shot Burke will need to hit against Syracuse. Here you can see the on-ball defender trailing him but the near side defender stepping up to help. Burke doesn’t really have anywhere to drive and the drop off pass to Morgan isn’t open. He simply pulls up for an 18-foot jumper and buries it before the help arrives.


Making the extra pass

Here’s another example where Burke gets to the middle and draws both top defenders. Whenever Burke can draw both top defenders, Michigan has an advantage on the near wing. Here you can see the near wing defender is stuck having to guard Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas. Burke makes the easy pass to LeVert.


LeVert draws the wing defender which leaves Stauskas wide open for a corner three.


Drive and Kick

Here Burke’s penetration comes from the side and he draws in the wing defender. That leaves him an easy kick out pass to Tim Hardaway Jr. on the wing.


Bottom Line

It’s not a common approach but the ball screen is going to be a key part of Michigan’s approach, just like any other game. When Michigan isn’t working out of the high post, and wants to get Trey Burke involved, it is more likely to have success using a ball screen. Burke threw some phenomenal back cut passes and alley oops in this game and he’ll have to be even better against Syracuse as the Orange has enough length to make every pass more difficult.

Just as with the high post approach, open lanes and passes are a result of hitting early shots. Burke needs to prove that he can knock down mid-range jumpers, hit open threes and score over Syracuse’s length. That threat will force the zone to be more aggressive defending him and hopefully open up some odd-man opportunities when the Orange over commit.

  • ForeverBlue

    I recorded the Syracuse – Marquette replay and just watched about 3/4 of it wondering why they didn’t try to use ball screens more. It will be interesting to see what JB does Saturday. I do think that Syracuse defense is as much about rhythm as Michigan’s offense though. If they get some stops, take away the shots their opponent’s are trying to get, they get more confident in anticipating and jumping passes. As their last game with Louisville showed though, put together a little run where they are getting hit from a variety of places and it takes the wind right out of their sails.

    We all know Michigan is capable of doing that. The key is patience, don’t let them into their heads.