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Film Room: Assessing Northwestern’s zone defense against Texas Tech

Chris Collins switched things up defensively on Sunday, but to what effect?

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Northwestern Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In the process of getting stomped by Texas Tech 85-49 Sunday night, Northwestern brought out a trick from the earlier Chris Collins daysthe zone defense. After the Wildcats fell behind 20-5 early, Collins pivoted to a zone for the rest of the first half. Northwestern opted for the zone on two different occasions in the second half. My back-of-the-napkin math says that Northwestern played zone on 30 possessions and man-to-man on 29 possessions (I excluded everything inside of the six-minute mark when the starters for both teams came out). Here’s a look at how both defenses performed statistically and on film. Again, my observation-based stats may be a bit imprecise.

Man-to-Man defense:

29 possessions, 39 points allowed (1.34 points/possession) on 65 percent shooting; 7 turnovers forced

The Wildcats’ half-court defense wasn’t actually that bad by the eye test. Texas Tech made a lot of tough shots and Northwestern’s dreadful offensive performance had negative effects on the other side of the floor as well. In the first half, Texas Tech scored 26 of its 41 points off of 15 Northwestern turnovers. It seemed like the Wildcats threw the ball away a dozen times, leading to easy transition points for the Red Raiders.

That goes in the book as an open three against man-to-man defense, but the only reason that shot is open is because Bryant McIntosh made a bad pass and Texas Tech capitalized in transition. Nonetheless, Northwestern had a couple of bad breakdowns in the half-court that led to easy buckets for Texas Tech, a trend that has continued since lackluster defensive performances against Loyola (Md.) and Creighton.

Here, McIntosh’s man, Davide Moretti, is going around a triple off-ball screen. McIntosh and Law should communicate to decide if they want to switch or not, but both of them end up on the perimeter guarding Moretti.

Law’s man, Zhaire Smith (2), is wide open in the restricted area, as Gavin Skelly is focused on his man, Justin Gray (5), who is slipping out to the perimeter.

The pass goes to Smith, and Skelly does well to get his hands up and ensure Smith doesn’t have an easy look. Meanwhile, Law has recovered to guard his original mark (Smith) and McIntosh does the same with Moretti.

Gray is now wide open for a three-pointer. For some reason, Law decided to leave Smith and go guard Gray (Skelly’s matchup). Here’s Skelly, presumably saying, “Vic, no!”

Nobody has any idea what to do now.

As Smith is burying the jumper from the elbow, check out Billy Donlon getting vertical with his frustration from the bench.

Lapses like that are to be expected in November, especially in a team’s fifth game in ten days. Getting into the flow of a season takes time, and knowing when to double team or switch might not come right away. Nonetheless, Northwestern’s defense has been in a lull all season long; the Cats sit at 291st in the country in effective FG percentage against and 307th in three-point percentage against. For a peek at a defense in full rhythm already, look no further than Texas Tech. Look at how the Red Raiders switch matchups seamlessly and swarm to the ball.

Zone defense:

30 possessions, 38 points allowed (1.27 points per possession) on 57 percent shooting; seven turnovers forced

Northwestern’s zone defense didn’t do a whole lot to slow down Texas Tech. The difference between allowing 1.34 points per possession and allowing 1.27 is negligible. Right now, Florida sits at fifth in the country in offensive scoring efficiency at 1.345 points per possession, while Virginia Tech and Arizona State are tied for 13th at 1.272 per possession. So either way, Northwestern allowed a ton of points. Live-ball turnovers ensured that the Northwestern zone didn’t do a whole lot to disrupt Texas Tech’s output.

The Red Raiders struggled initially to adjust to the new defensive look the first two times they saw it. To break the zone, Texas Tech used a big man in the high post, while often running a wing back and forth along the baseline. On his second possession against the zone midway through the first half, Niem Stevenson forces a pass to Zach Smith at the free throw line, leading to a turnover.

Facing the zone and man for nearly equal parts of the first half, Texas Tech turned the ball over against zone more often. However, their scoring output was nearly identical — they scored 21 points against the zone and 20 points against man, largely in part to Wildcat turnovers and offensive struggles.

Chris Collins went back to man to start the second half, but after Texas Tech extended its lead to 50-32, the Wildcats switched back to a 2-3 look with 15 minutes on the game clock. Sure enough, Texas Tech failed to score in its first three half-court possessions, including this steal where Northwestern did a good job swarming to the ball.

The third time Collins opted for the zone, Texas Tech was ready for it. The Red Raiders scored on four consecutive possessions, going on a 10-0 run to extend their lead to 69-42.

On the first possession, McIntosh and Anthony Gaines end up guarding the same player on the perimeter.

Gaines should bump down to cover Smith (#11), who is about to be wide-open for a 18-footer. When the freshman realizes his mistake, it’s too late.

Three possessions later, Law is a little too aggressive trying to snatch the entry pass to the high post. One touch pass later, and Texas Tech has completed its 10-0 run and extended the lead to 27.


The results from Northwestern’s experiment with the zone defense tell us that this might be a wrinkle deployed in doses to flummox other teams who are in a rhythm. The first two times Collins switched up the defense, Texas Tech struggled to adjust initially, slowing down their pace considerably and turning the ball over at a higher rate. Texas Tech was able to keep pace in the first half because of the transition points they scored off turnovers. A disciplined zone for five or six possessions at a time could slow the roll of a humming opposing offense. Use the defense for fifteen or more possessions, however, and you might get figured out and exploited, especially if a team can shoot from the outside. Northwestern’s defense should improve across the board as the season progresses, but whether or not Collins continues to use the zone remains to be seen.