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Northwestern's 1-3-1 Zone: A Primer

When I grow up, I want to be a basketball coach.

(Being 20 years old, I'm still hypothetically allowed to start blog posts with "when I grow up".)

I'm a journalism student. It's not that I don't love journalism. It's just that I have an obsession with the game of basketball. Everything about it. Watching it, playing it... and although I've never coached it, I imagine that's something I would be good at. (I imagine this a lot.)

However, I don't have a basketball team to coach. (Nor do I have any idea how to get into the profession of coaching, anThed having presumably alienated the entire Northwestern basketball infrastructure with my Daily reporting/blog, I'm not cracking into it here, but that's besides the point.) (though, seriously, any tips?) I have a blog. This is my venue to show off how much I know about basketball. (I think it's a lot.) So, this will be the first in a series of posts about Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone where I try to flex my x's and o's muscle.

A lot of basketball coaching isn't X's and O's, but, well, at Northwestern, most of it is - we do interesting offense/defense and shooting. That's it. The 1-3-1 tends to be pretty heavily maligned by fans, and while I don't completely disagree, I don't think it's completely fair either. I think it's a beautiful concept that Northwestern executes very well, but often forgets its major, major flaw. This series of posts hopes to highlight its virtues while pointing out that the 1-3-1 zone should never, ever be the sole, base defense for a Big Ten level team.

This post will be a primer: I'm going to break down the 1-3-1 on a player-by-player basis - who goes where, when, for NU. Note that I say "for NU" - different teams play the zone differently, and NU has some particularly notable differences.


Ahh, here it is. 14:25 mark of the first half against Georgia Tech, NU is trailing, they come out in the 1-3-1 for the first time. (Never mind the fact that Georgia Tech runs a perfect set play designed to beat the 1-3-1 that results in a wide-open three that I will profile later in this series when I do a post about the failings of the 1-3-1. Don't pay attention to that fact.) It's the quintessential NU 1-3-1 defense, and like any 1-3-1, there are four distinct roles: I've termed them the point man (up top) the center (middle) the wings (sides) and the bottom. These positions don't reflect the five positions typically associated with basketball terminology (except for the center), therefore, this is the terminology I will use for this post, and for the rest of this series.

Some quick points about the zone:

Every play is a triple team: The purpose of the 1-3-1 is to prevent penetration, force turnovers, and make sure that any pass takes enough time to allow the zone to reset. Typically, two players will directly play the ball while a third - the center - stands a few feet away. A double team obviously doesn't allow the player to drive and has a high chance of forcing turnovers because it's difficult to do things when you're guarded by two people. It's also difficult to pass out of - if you do make a pass, it's generally lofty and allows everybody to get to the next player they need to defend. So three people will guard the ball while the other two maintain positions where they know that they can get to one of two players quickly should the player with the ball make an average pass.

Everybody plays the ball: It sounds silly, but in the 1-3-1, even when you're a mile away from the ball, you play the ball. Like, back to the man you could be guarding, face the ball. When you're playing man, you try to stay aware of the ball while guarding your man. But in the 1-3-1, you face the ball at all times while sort of staying aware of your man: the goal is to pressure the ball-handler and force him into a pass he shouldn't make, so if you're the wing man and the ball is on the other side, you're watching the ball so you can pick off a skip pass. The point of the zone is that any pass over the zone will be relatively difficult, and that even if they do make that picture perfect pass to an open man, that pass will take long enough that the zone has time to rotate. In a man, you never turn your back to the man you're assigned to, because he'll backdoor you. In the 1-3-1, that's not a concern, because there are three guys guarding the ballhandler and making that backdoor nearly impossible to execute, even if the off-ball player is completely unguarded.

Move: Everyone's playing the ball, which means every player moves on every pass, or else it fails. The point man runs from side to side, the wings slide up and down, the center shifts across. You get tired playing the 1-3-1.

The point man

Who does it for NU?: Alex Marcotullio, Jeff Ryan, and JerShon Cobb.

What's it do? The position Jeremy Nash made famous. Basically, the point man's job is to pick up the ballhandler as they come across halfcourt - or even earlier - and force them to one side or the other, then make it as difficult as possible for them to get the ball to the other side. He always remains perpendicular to the half-court line. At first, this is merely a nuisance for the ballhandler, as the point man generally situates himself halfway between the ballhandler and any player on the other side, and essentially engages in a very athletic game of monkey in the middle. However, this monkey in the middle has a purpose - forcing the opponent to one side is critical, because it forces them into the wing defender. The point man becomes closer and closer to the ballhandler until he is engaged in a double team of the ballhandler with the wing man by the time he reaches the 3-point arc in hopes of forcing a turnover. When the ball gets down low against the 1-3-1, the point man shifts to the opposite side of the court and prevents passes to the weak side.

So what are you looking for in that player?: "Springy" is the adjective I would use. The guy up top should be your most athletic player - good jumper, quick, the least likely to get burnt out quick from sprinting back from one side of the court to the other. A lot of people will point to length when describing the point man, but I won't, because in the 1-3-1, length is possibly the most important factor for every player on the court, because everybody always has both arms up at all times in hopes of deflecting a pass - that length is equally important for the center and wings. This is your prime turnover-causer.

The wings

Who does it for NU?: John Shurna and Drew Crawford play most of the game here. Jeff Ryan plays here when he's on the court with Marcotullio or JerShon Cobb, I'd assume Cobb does as well when Marcotullio is on the floor but haven't seen it happen yet. Mike Capocci plays here when he is in the game.

What's it do?: The wings are the primary double-teamers whose job it is to make passes along the sides of the zone difficult. Most teams keep a player in the corner looking for a catch-and-shoot. They play parallel to the baseline and half-court line while the bottom and point man are typically perpendicular, making a right angle with them on double teams. When the ball is on his side, the wing steps up to the ball-handler to double and prevent this pass from being made - if it is made, he rotates down to the receiver of the pass and attempts to double him with the player from the bottom, or, if there isn't enough time, just prevents that player from getting a shot off. When the ball is on the other side, he's typically the only player left on his side, so he drops down below the foul line extended to make sure he's in position to cover anybody on his side should the pass be made - and hopefully pick off that pass.

So what are you looking for in this player?: This is definitely the position that requires the least defensive acumen. It covers the least ground and failures here are typically less costly than failures anywhere else, mainly because the players involved are typically 20 feet away from the basket.

The center

Who does it for NU?: Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. (Ivan Peljusic does as well, but he has only played very limited bench minutes this year.)

What's it do?: In any zone, the most vulnerable part is in the middle, because from the middle, a pass is easy to any part of the court. The center's job is to make sure no player gets open in the middle. This is generally accomplished not by guarding players that come open in the middle, but by playing a loose triple-team on the ball-handler. While the point man and wing double, a center in the 1-3-1 plays about 5-10 feet off the ball and gets his hands up. When the ball is passed, he assumes a position 5-10 feet away from the receiver of the pass, rinses, and repeats - this happens when the ball is up top or in either of the corners. He keeps any player trying to get the ball in the middle behind him, in doing so, shutting off the passing lane. However, when the zone collapses and the ball gets into the post, these responsibilities go by the wayside. If the ball gets entered to a player who is one-on-one with the man on the bottom, it's the center's job to double-team him to prevent him from getting an easy shot. If the man on the bottom is forced to rotate to a player on the sides of the court, the center's responsibility shifts to guarding players in the lane one-on-one.

So what are you looking for in that player?: It goes without saying, but, height. This is the guy who is tall enough that passes over him take time. Also, while he's not the player assigned to the part of the court closest to the basket, he is generally the one guarding large players around the basket - either as a help man or a primary defender.

The bottom

Who does it for NU?: Michael Thompson. Juice essentially has played every meaningful minute of every game, meaning if NU plays a 1-3-1, he's on the court, and he's always on the bottom.

What's it do?: Much like the point man, the bottom has to cover both sides of the court so he spends a lot of time scrambling from side to side. When the ball is up top, he has to maintain a position where he can get to a guy in the corner and a guy in the paint easily - he'll have to attempt to run out on or double the guy in the corner should that pass come and is also the emergency last line of defense should the ball get to the post. If the ball does get to the post, he's ideally able to delay the shot of the post player until he gets help defense. When the ball switches sides, so does he.

So what are you looking for in that player?: Speed. If a player is in the corner, this guy has to get out on them. If the ball switches sides, he has to make sure nobody gets an open look. However, the position requires some size too, because of their obvious paint duties and the fact that they're near the basket a lot and have to rebound - Juice fulfills the first part of this well. However, one of the biggest discrepancies between Carmody's 1-3-1 and that of other coaches is the fact that he puts his point guard down low - this is typically a position you will see given to an athletic power forward. It sacrifices some of the speed Thompson has - well, Juice actually isn't very fast by point guard standards, but, that's besides the point - but the extra height makes up for it when the player is running out on shooters.