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Northwestern Basketball Season in Review Roundtable: Is the zone here to stay?

Chris Collins likes man-to-man, but given personnel, the zone might be the best option.

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Over the next two weeks, beginning Monday, March 23, we'll be holding an extended Inside NU roundtable to rehash and analyze Northwestern men's basketball's 2014/15 season. We'll pose one question every day -- some general, some more specific; some looking back, some looking ahead -- and a group of our writers will respond. Additionally, over the coming days, we'll have separate articles breaking down some of the topics in more depth.

Yesterday, we took a look at Vic Law's late season surge and what it meant for Law going forward. Today, we answer what will arguably the biggest question heading into next season:

Is the 2-3 zone here to stay? Or was it just a quick fix? Does Collins want to eventually play exclusively man-to-man?

Zach Pereles: This question depends entirely on the physical development of Collins' players this offseason. I think he would love to play man-to-man exclusively at some point, but I don't think he'll be able to do so next year. The defensive struggles of Bryant McIntosh and the rest of the key freshmen, and most notably Alex Olah, were exposed in the man-to-man. McIntosh had trouble defending opposing point guards one-on-one, and if you can't stop the primary ball handler, it's going to be hard to win. Also, guys like Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey were simply outmuscled by bigger wings. Neither guy weighs above 185; compare that to Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (220), Wisconsin's Sam Dekker (220) and Maryland's Dez Wells (215). Collins was forced to go to the zone because it was too easy for bigger players to score in the man-to-man. Those three totaled 80 points in their teams' combined five games against Northwestern.

Finally, Olah's lack of quickness killed Northwestern's defensive rebounding in the man-to-man. When stationed near the rim in the middle of the zone, Olah rebounded well for the most part (let's disregard that Indiana game to end the year). Overall, I think the zone will have to stick around another year unless the rising sophomores get much stronger and better on the defensive end.

Ben Goren: There were three reasons Northwestern had to go to zone last year. Alex Olah, for as massive a man as he is, is not a great man to man defender. North Florida made that abundantly clear. Northwestern also doesn't have a true 4. Vic Law was super skinny last year and Gavin Skelly just wasn't ready to see a lot of minutes. Third, Northwestern couldn't stop dribble penetration, shown by the way Illinois handled their business in Welsh-Ryan.

I think man is going to make a comeback next year, and the success of it is going to rely heavily on Joey Van Zegeren. If optimistic scouting reports are to be believed, JVZ is a center who is quick and athletic, someone who can handle man-to-man responsibilities. If he plays as Olah's backup, it wouldn't shock me to see NU switch defensive looks in game, playing zone with Olah and man with Van Zegeren. Northwestern also has a reinforcement coming in at the 4 in Aaron Falzon. I'm not ready to say that he would fix the Northwestern defense single handedly, but having someone with a little more bulk than Vic Law is going to be helpful when NU has to matchup against someone like Sam Dekker. McIntosh and Demps are still going to be minuses defensively, but that's a problem in zone or man defense. The fact that it took the Wildcats so long to go to a zone defense should let everyone know how much Collins believes in man-to-man. We're going to see a lot of it in non-conference play, and the new guys are going to play a big part in it.

Henry Bushnell: Zach and Ben hit the nail on the head. I want to go back to something assistant coach Brian James said when I spoke to him late in the season about the changes the coaching staff decided to pull the trigger on after that horrid Michigan State loss. Here is James' quote: "Whatever we were doing, it wasn't working for 10 games. It might be those things that will work next year. But for this time, we wanted to change everything." That sort of explains what the zone was. It was a quick fix, and not something Collins wants to use regularly.

With that being said though, it was a quick fix that was, for the most part, very successful. And the main problem that it was fixing -- Alex Olah's inability to defend on the perimeter and at the same time be a rim-protector and dominant rebounder -- will still be present next year. So the zone isn't about to disappear. As Ben discussed, the arrival of Joey Van Zegeren, assuming he comes as advertised, will allow Collins to play man. And I even think arguably the coaching staff's biggest focus this offseason will be working with Olah so that the Wildcats can play man-to-man when he's on the court too. But Olah will always be more effective in a zone, so when he's on the court, I think we'll see more zone than man.

But, going back to the James quote, I'm not even sure Collins and the staff know which defense they want to be their primary one yet. Collins even said something to the effect of "I don't know" when the question was posed late in the season. This will be one of the biggest storylines heading into next season, and there's a very good chance we won't get an answer until the season opener.

Daniel Rapaport: I think we'll see both. It's always difficult to forecast what type of defense--or offense--a team is going to play; let's remember, Northwestern opened up the season playing exclusively man-to-man, and it wasn't until about halfway through the conference season that it became evident that a change needed to be made.

I'd guess Northwestern will start the season in primarily man-to-man defensive sets, as that seems to be what Collins would prefer on an island. The reinforcements coming to the frontline next year--van Zegeren, Falzon, Pardon--give some reason to be optimistic that Northwestern will be able to contain big men in man-to-man defenses, which is something they weren't able to do this year. And Northwestern's guards, who were bullied by more physically mature perimeter players, should be able to add the necessary bulk to hold their own physically.

But next year's team will look shockingly similar to this year's personnel wise, and it's only one year difference, so I wouldn't expect this team to suddenly become Kentucky-like stoppers in the man-to-man. Like this season, if it becomes clear that Northwestern doesn't have the right players to play successful man defense in the Big Ten, we'll see Northwestern switch to the zone. Collins has shown himself to be a flexible coach who isn't stubbornly insistent upon a specific philosophy or playing style, but instead coaches to his personnel and to what's working. If the man-to-man works, there'll be no reason to use the zone with any frequency. But if it doesn't, I don't think Collins will hesitate to try something that was pretty successful with a group of largely the same players.

Josh Rosenblat: The zone was definitely a quick fix for this team only. The offseason should afford Collins more time to work with the younger players defensively, enough to eventually get rid of the zone completely. He has consistently expressed a desire to be a "hard-nosed, defense-first team" that starts with an aggressive man-to-man philosophy. There are, though, parts of the zone that individuals can take with them to a man-to-man scheme. Alex Olah, for example, became a formidable rim-protector and rebounder. As we so often mention, more than half the battle with Olah is mental and the defensive confidence he gained in the center of the zone will be huge for him moving forward.