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Breaking down Northwestern's 2-3 zone against Wisconsin

Although the final score may not have been close, Northwestern showed promising flashes in deploying a 2-3 zone, and holding a historically efficient offense to below its season averages. Here is a breakdown of how the Wildcats did that.

Chris Collins had a little wrinkle up his sleeve Saturday as the Wildcats went north to the Kohl Center to take on the Wisconsin. That wrinkle was a 2-3 zone. The Wildcats came out in the new defense and, aside from a brief reversion to man, stuck to it. When the Badgers went up 21-4, it looked like Collins had made a bad call.

But the final score was 65-50, and Northwestern actually outscored Wisconsin and the Buzzcuts (brilliant nickname credit to the indefatigable Mark Titus) 46-44 the rest of the way. Wisconsin started the game shooting 73 percent, but ended the game with only a 38.9 percent field goal percentage, well below its top-20 average. Northwestern also held the Badgers to nine points below their season average scoring wise, an impressive feat considering Wisconsin scored 21 points in the first nine minutes.

Here we’re going to take a look at some of the the things Northwestern can take away defensively from this stellar effort as Chris Collins and his team look ahead to the rest of their season.

The Wildcats came out with Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh on top of the zone, with the big Romanian Alex Olah anchoring the middle. He was flanked by Scottie Lindsey on one side and JerShon Cobb on the other. On the first possession, Wisconsin seemed to be a little surprised by the zone and took almost the entire shot clock to get a fairly contested three pointer. This is a good thing. 

On the second possession however, Wisconsin seemed more relaxed and was able to get the ball to the high post, specifically to their fulcrum, Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky calmly found Sam Dekker open for the knockdown three. This is not a good thing.

As you can see, once Kaminsky has the ball in the high post, the entire defense has to collapse on him, leaving Dekker open for the easy kick-out. Not much you can do about that. Frank Kaminsky is a very good, very smart basketball player.

Getting the ball to the high post was a big reason for Wisconsin's efficiency early in the game. And even if the Badgers didn't get the ball to Kaminsky in the high post, the mere threat of his presence there was enough to bend NU's defense. The Badgers did a nice job of taking advantage by swinging the ball quickly and cleanly across the perimeter until they could catch the Wildcats shifting, and then driving or passing the ball inside to break down the zone.

What followed was that Northwestern switched to man-to-man defense for a handful of possessions and got absolutely torched. So Collins switched back to the 2-3 zone, and that is where things got interesting. Part of it was that there was no way Wisconsin could keep up its 70-plus percent shooting for the whole game, but part of it was Northwestern. NU started to deny Kaminsky the ball at the high post, which is where the 2-3 zone can really be exploited.

To do this, the Wildcats had the backside guard crash down on Kaminsky whenever the ball was on the wing, trying to dissuade the other Badgers players from passing him the ball. This meant Demps and McIntosh, the two players most often in that position, had to play tough with the seven-footer. And that's exactly what they did, refusing to back down and making Wisconsin work to get the ball to the high post.

The other strategy Northwestern employed effectively was when they allowed the ball to get to Kaminsky, they forced him to catch it on the wing, a much less useful position for attacking the zone. They accomplished this by repeatedly denying Kaminsky the ball and playing him physically, forcing him to vacate the rough and tumble high post area for the greener and more open pastures of the wings. Kaminsky is still a seven-footer with 25-foot range and hence, a dangerous basketball player. But Kaminsky catching the ball on the wing versus the 2-3 defense instead of Kaminsky catching the ball at the high post versus the 2-3 defense is a major advantage for the Wildcats.

Aside from Kaminsky, the Wildcats also started doing a few things after switching back to the 2-3 zone that enabled them to essentially play the Badgers even the rest of the way. For one thing, Northwestern started trapping players who got the ball in the short corner, discouraging future forays into that territory, a strategically beneficial place to have the ball against the 2-3 zone.

As soon as a player would catch the ball in that area, either a wing and a guard or a wing and Olah would rush at the player and double him in the corner, trying to force a misguided decision. The other players are playing 4-on-3 for the time being so they have to be rotating in sync to keep the Badgers from getting easy looks. The Wildcats did a much better job of that in the second half, trapping and recovering to force Wisconsin into tough shots late in the shot clock.

Another thing the Wildcats started doing well was taking away the easy skip passes they were allowing early in the game. Wisconsin is full of tall, athletic players, and allowing them to throw skip passes against the 2-3 zone is a recipe for disaster. The skip pass forces the zone to scramble even more than it normally would, and thus opens unforeseen driving lanes and passing angles. By denying the skip passes later in the game, the Wildcats didn't allow their zone to be broken down so easily.

So while at first glance, the score might indicate a negative game for the Northwestern, there are certainly defensive positives to take away from it. Holding a historically efficient offense to below its season averages in points and field goal percentage, especially after the start the Badgers had, is an impressive feat for any team. And Northwestern's youth only adds to the positives Chris Collins can take away from this.

The 2-3 zone is beaten by making tough, outside shots and Wisconsin made enough of those, especially in the early going, that the Wildcats could never climb all the way back. But this was a promising defensive performance for a young team. I'm not advocating in favor of 15-point losses, but this game shouldn't be written off entirely as a lost cause.