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Film Room: Chris Collins’ unconventional zone defense

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No wonder Providence was so confused.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

I am only 5’11”. I also played center for my high school school basketball team. Clearly, our team was drastically undersized. As a result, we had to do things a little different on the defensive end.

For three straight years, we played a variety of zone defenses that I anchored in the middle. 1-3-1 was our preferred choice. We often used the 2-3 against good-shooting teams. We even used a defense once where three players are face guarding, while the other two play a high-low two man zone. Yet, despite all of my experience in zone’s true kingdom (mediocre high school basketball), I’ve never seen a defense quite like what Northwestern broke out against Providence.

Let’s get into the film:

Strengths

Coach Collins didn’t waste any time trying to ease his team into this new setup following the Merrimack debacle. The ‘Cats came out playing zone from the opening tip.

A team walking back in a 2-2-1 press to slow the tempo isn’t that unusual, but it is much more so when the team then remains in that 2-2-1 for their half court defense. As appears obvious to the naked eye, this scheme leaves the high post and the short corner dangerously open. But Collins and co. were keenly aware of these issues, and made sure their zone covered those potential pitfalls.

Notice how Anthony Gaines and Pat Spencer would slide to cover the high post when the ball goes to the opposite side, or how Pete Nance and Miller Kopp performed circle cuts, meaning they slid nearly to the sideline in order to deny passes to the corners. This was a near perfect defensive possession for the ‘Cats, as the play resulted in a long, contested two from poor-shooting big man Kalif Young.

As the founding member of the rejuvenated Pete Nance Hive, this possession was absolutely delightful. After Gaines got sucked in a hair too far, Nance immediately hustled up to cover the open man and correctly anticipated that the next pass would go to the uncovered corner. He’s been Northwestern’s best player both overall and defensively thus far this season, and though it has been just two games, he looks like an entirely different player.

It’s also important to again note how flexible and interchangeable the zone was against Providence. Northwestern walked back into that half court 2-2-1, but Kopp and Nance dropped so low that eventually it was practically a 2-3 from there on out. This screenshot right here is almost picturesque 2-3 defense, albeit somewhat extended.

All night, the Northwestern zone was this amorphous blob that shifted between 2-2-1, 2-3 and 1-3-1, often even doing so in the midst of the possession. It was absolutely beautiful.

This sequence starts out in a standard 1-3-1, yet even when Providence properly responded by splitting the top guard and keeping one post in, Northwestern shifted to a pseudo-2-3 and ended up forcing a Buie steal that was ruled a shot clock violation after he fumbled it. These two pictures took place in the same ten second span and look like vastly different defenses.

If there was one constant in Northwestern’s defense, it was how the wings always extended in very aggressive fashion. The strategy for NU was to intimidate Providence’s guards with their superior length and force the Friars into hesitant and poor decision making as they were swarmed by the attacking defense.

Beran came out with visible aggression, almost triple-teaming the Providence guard. Give him props for full commitment to attacking the ball with his superior length. Too often players get stuck in the middle, trying to multi-task on the basketball court, and fail to accomplish anything positive. Even if Beran had made a mistake, it would have been an act of commission rather than omission, which is always preferable on the court.

Concerns

Despite all of the great things I saw from the ‘Cats defense against Providence, this performance must be taken with a grain of salt due to how poorly Providence attacked the zone.

One of the first things you’re taught when attacking zone defenses at any level of basketball is that you can never line up flat, meaning that if your teammate has the ball and there is a defender in between the two of you, you should not be in the same horizontal line. Instead, you need to back up and create a clear lane. In the picture below, Turner blocks the direct passing lane, and if a lob pass was for some reason attempted, Kopp would have been ready to pick it off.

What Providence’s David Duke should have done was step back toward the N logo near mid-court. That would have allowed his teammate to give him an easy pass, and he suddenly would have a runway to build up speed and attack the defense’s interior. Instead, he lines up flat and the offense stagnates.

Even when the Friars properly exposed gaps in the hybrid-zone, they often failed to convert those opportunities in to points, shooting a woeful 30.6% from the field on the game and 22.9% from beyond the arc. This sequence was pitiful and downright comical at the same time.

Not particularly great defense by the ‘Cats, just complete inability from Providence. Just a hunch, but I think Cassius Winston can make open layups, so these breakdowns probably won’t cut it against teams like Michigan State later this season.

I was impressed with how active the Northwestern defenders were for the majority of the night. Zones can be really effective, but only if there is complete buy in and effort. A momentary lapse can result in an open three for the opponent.

I initially thought this was a 1-3-1 defense, but it’s quite possible that it was a 2-3, because I seriously doubt that Collins wanted Spencer in the middle of the defense. It’s likely that Spencer simply relaxed and drifted into no man’s land. Besides simple lack of positioning, you can also tell how lax the defense was by the lack of activity. It seems simple, but one of the most important concepts to a good defense is every player always keeping their hands up. The reason this pass is so easy is because nobody is doing that here:

Throughout the game, though, Providence continued to bail NU out even when they weren’t completely within their assignments, often playing right into the extended areas of the zone. They consistently kept four players above that front four of the modified 2-2-1, and the result was a lack of spacing and ball flow.

The Friars should have tried to exploit the over-aggressive nature of the defense by placing at least two players somewhere along the baseline, which forces the low man to choose between the options and gives a shooter a good look, like it did right here.

Final Takeaways

The Northwestern defense wasn’t bad against Providence, but it might have been a little bit gimmicky. That’s not to say the coaches don’t deserve credit for recognizing that they could force a guard-heavy team into bad above-the-break shots by extending the defense, or that the players don’t deserve credit for playing hard all night and forcing those bad shots.

But this defense is not some incredible revelation that could move the ‘Cats up a tier in the Big Ten standings. Merrimack exposed their man defense, and Northwestern properly responded with a zone that utilized their own length and banked on the fact that a smaller Providence team couldn’t figure it out on time, especially if they happened to be struggling from the outside. Most high-major offenses likely figure this out after being initially confused (especially once they have tape on it), so I doubt that the ‘Cats continue to play this same style of zone the rest of the year.

It worked against Providence, though, and that’s all that mattered on that night. The zone created one of the program’s biggest wins of the last three years, and the relative ingenuity the coaching staff indicated in crafting it indicated that even if this team continues to lose more than they win, they are not a lost cause.