College Basketball

Even in a 3-point world, zone defense re-emerges in ACC basketball

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim pleads with a referee about a call in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Syracuse, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Syracuse won 69-59.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim pleads with a referee about a call in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Syracuse, N.Y., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Syracuse won 69-59. AP

We barely give a thought anymore to how thoroughly the 3-point shot permeates offensive and defensive strategy in college basketball. The average ACC team derives 26 percent of its points overall from beyond the arc this season, 28 percent in league play. That compares with about 20 percent from the foul line. The proportions were much the same 20 years ago.

“Three-point shooting is a really interesting topic because of how many ways you do it, and we try to incorporate as many ways as we can,” says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the shot’s most avid practitioners.

The 3-pointer’s permanent introduction in 1987 – after four years of experimentation – altered the game. Tied to a new shot clock, some of the changes were predictable. Other consequences were not, among them the ACC’s current drift toward more use of zone defenses despite the threat posed by 3-point baskets.

Consistent with initial forecasts, rallies are more easily mounted nowadays with the three. End-game thinking is a bit more complex: Foul before a 3-pointer can be launched, or rely on your defense to prevent the basket? The three can ignite a home crowd or instantly shift momentum. The long-range shooter, once an all-but-extinct species of player, has made a comeback. Young big men have developed a wider range of offensive skills.

“The 3-point shot will change the way kids are taught to play and what they can do,” Pete Carril, the influential Princeton coach, said in 1988. “In the long run we’ll see the development of more Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons, tall guys who in their growing-up stages, their high school coaches will teach to diversify their skills.”

Inside out

But college coaches say the shot also lures many of those same big men away from low-post skills that potentially offer their greatest advantage. One reason 6-foot-11 Duke center Jahlil Okafor is so unusual is his thorough acceptance and mastery of a back-to-the-basket game. While serving as a distribution hub, sending relocation passes to teammates poised to let fly from the perimeter, Okafor hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer in his college career.

When Duke won back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992, 6-11 Christian Laettner, himself a good jump shooter, likewise served as the offensive focal point from a post position. This fostered unit cohesion, among other attributes. “In so many ways, your best player was saying, ‘I want you to shoot it, not me,’” Krzyzewski explains.

A similar, if more pronounced, example of a four-out, one-in alignment has vaulted Notre Dame to the ACC’s top tier in 2015. Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey absorbed his lessons as a Duke assistant from 1988-95. Playing without a traditional frontline, his high-scoring Notre Dame squad led the league in 3-point accuracy (.401) through 27 games and trailed only Miami in threes attempted per game (22.0) and only Duke in scoring (79.5).

Still, for all the jabber about building offenses from the outside in, most coaches prefer the reverse formulation. Getting the ball inside is apt to produce more easy baskets and trips to the foul line, where the throws are free, or so we say.

Skeptics may reasonably question North Carolina’s lack of productivity from the bonusphere. But Roy Williams learned the game’s imperatives from Dean Smith, whose philosophy dictated starting close to the basket and working out. Williams’ teams have scored plenty while using the three somewhat sparingly, even when blessed with an array of perimeter marksmen.

Introduction of the 3-pointer was supposed to increase scoring. Spreading the offense also was envisioned as a palliative for rough post play, a longtime gripe voiced by Smith, among others. Whether either result has been achieved remains debatable.

Return of the zone

Perhaps most important in some eyes, the threat of the 3-pointer was expected, and intended, to squelch the tempo-tamping zone defenses common 30 years ago.

The zone did recede in usage, but never went away, nurtured at outposts like Syracuse, where a 2-3 zone is as much a fixture as Jim Boeheim’s frown. Now it appears the alignment is creeping back, at least in the ACC, thanks in no small part to Syracuse’s arrival last year.

The Orange, along with Louisville, another Big East émigré, reached the 2013 Final Four using zones extended to cover the 3-point arc. Last season, its first in the ACC, Syracuse won 25 in a row to start its tenure despite one of the league’s weakest 3-point field goal percentage defenses.

“Coaches tend to mimic the teams that are being successful,” says Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “They tweak what they’re doing or add something they’re not doing, and the zone was an obvious option.”

Obvious, if a bit counterintuitive when facing good 3-point shooters.

“Here’s a stat for you,” Larranaga, a data maven, says to confirm the recent ACC trend toward zones. “In 2012-13, the year we won the ACC championship, in league play only, we did not face zone more than 10 possessions in the entire 18-game schedule.”

Then Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse joined the conference, and thinking shifted. “Last year we faced zone from almost every team, including Clemson and Florida State, teams that never zone,” Larranaga says. “The only teams that didn’t zone were Virginia and Duke, and now Duke is zoning.”

Finding balance

This isn’t simply a fashion statement. “Why is there more zone?” Brey asks. “Dealing with ball screens.” Fighting through screens set for shooters can be “exhausting” for a defender, Brey says. Staying in a zone additionally allows an offensive-oriented player to catch his breath and a defense to deter dribble penetration.

Brad Brownell’s Clemson teams are noted for hard-nosed man defense. Lately, however, he’s turned to zones more than observers realize. Last month his squad played zone nearly three-quarters of the time against Louisville, a notoriously weak 3-point shooting club (.310 on the year).

“None of the media that were watching the game thought enough to mention that during the telecast, but it was a pretty good strategy by coach Brownell,” the Tiger coach says playfully, “as he took Clemson in there and had the lead at halftime and was down two with a minute to go.” The Tigers led at the KFC Yum! Center 22-18 at the half, only to lose 58-52.

Brownell believes Duke’s coaches were informed by his approach. One game after the Blue Devils were dissected at home by Miami’s quick guards, Krzyzewski caused a stir by extensively employing a mix of zone defenses to win at Louisville.

Krzyzewski, once a man-defense purist, concedes good zones incorporate man-to-man principles. Also originally an outspoken critic of the 3-pointer, his teams are now among its most aggressive devotees. Since 1996, Krzyzewski’s teams venture an unusually robust 21 attempts per game from beyond the arc, accounting for 29 percent of their scoring. This year, despite barrages like its 10 of 16 effort in Wednesday’s overtime victory over North Carolina, Duke employs threes at levels slightly below its two-decade norms.

When it comes to incorporating the 3-pointer judiciously on offense, and tinkering with different ways to contain it on defense, Larranaga has a simple solution. “My thought about offense, defense and life itself is always about the same thing: balance,” he says. “You have to have balance in everything you do.”