The Athletic KenPom article on zone vs man to defenses ($$$)

Submitted by Bambi on January 15th, 2019 at 2:26 PM

Link to article (on The Athletic so it's behind a paywall)

Good article by KenPom about zone vs man defenses in college basketball. He notes that zone defenses have become less prevalent with the new basketball Meta of shooting 3's. I don't want to put too much of the article in here since it's behind a paywall, but I think the most interesting thing to note was that teams that play man tend to have higher conference winning percentages than teams who play zone by a sizeable margin, but teams that play zone have higher winning percentages by a similar margin compared to teams who play a mix between man and zone.


Mike Damone

January 15th, 2019 at 2:41 PM ^

Sparty - 8 for 37 behind the line in 2nd round of 2018 tourney vs. Syracuse.

Duke - 9 for 43 from 3 last night v. Syracuse.

The Orangemen are pretty much my favorite team over the past year.

Seriously - if you have a smart coach like Beilein, a point guard like Z who is relentless in looking for holes in the D, and a team that has multiple effective scorers from all over the floor - you are going to beat that zone if you are smart and patient.

Lloyd's Boy

January 15th, 2019 at 2:34 PM ^

I'd be interested to see how that changes come tournament time, because it certainly feels like zone teams like Syracuse tend to progress further than expected with some regularity. 


January 15th, 2019 at 5:47 PM ^

I would bet that your assumption is correct that zone teams outperform expectations in tournaments when there is less familiarity with the opponent and less time between games to prepare.

And indeed, Boeheim leads current coaches in NCAA tournament wins above expectation when he overtook longtime leader Tom Izzo last season. FTR, I think this metric is a little flawed because it rewards longevity as a raw metric.  Seems like it should be wins above expectation per appearance (with a minimum number of appearances).

The interesting thing about Syracuse is most of their wins above expectation and runs as a low seed have happened recently - which is a little counterintuitive since players in general are better 3pt shooters these days.

Just three years ago, Boeheim was 12th and way behind Izzo.  Boeheim nearly doubled his WAE in just three years after coaching for like 27 years.  Put another way, his performance in this metric in just those three years would put him 11th all-time, just ahead of Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens.

So there's clearly a lot of noise.

But if your expectations are lower because you've been running a zone all year, is it that great that you exceeded those expectations but still fell short of a bunch of man teams and short of what you could have done had you been running man the whole time (and thus just had higher expectations in the first place)?

Every major program besides Syracuse had decided it's better to do well all season long and have higher expectations going into the tournament.


January 15th, 2019 at 3:01 PM ^

This legend lives a point zone and you can defend the perimeter just as well as man-plus you have better control over penetration. And clearly, here, some do not know how to play the 1-3-1...we destroyed teams with it-especially if they got lazy and stupid...then we would trap out of it. 

It's funny that the 2-3 is the standard zone that is usually is the swiss cheese of was 50 years ago too. We would often drop back and show a 2-3 but would invariably rotate out of right away-to 1-2-2, 1-3-1-1 or man.



January 15th, 2019 at 2:45 PM ^

I was blessed to play for a defensive genius in HS. We played everything and played it very well...switching multiple times within a single possession and pressing 1-2-1-1 three different ways. I have no understanding why college teams with all this time to practice and talent to execute-and a shot clock for crying out loud- do not do what we did 50 years ago in HS. The only team we could not beat had a 6'11" All-American HS center whom we had no physical answer for...that's life.

BTB grad

January 15th, 2019 at 2:49 PM ^

"with all this time to practice"

Hey there Rich Rod, I don't think you understand NCAA practice limits.

There's a reason pressing is non-existent in the NBA, rare in college, and but common in high school. Its effectiveness decreases exponentially against good offensive talent. You're gassing out your players for absolutely no benefit. 


"switching multiple times within a single possession"

Sounds like a really easy way to have defensive breakdowns. There's a reason the NBA has moved to switch-everything. 


January 15th, 2019 at 3:41 PM ^

Oh boy, here comes the ignorance-raining down. I know too many on this board despise knowledge in favor of urban or street legend (stupidity)...but why do you think strategies and schemes cycle??? Today, offenses and defenses are morphing right in front of us.You likely do not recall many of the changes that all of the sports have  transitioned to and through-like the ridiculous shot-gun formation in way was that going to work!!!!!!!!!!!

You don't think these kids are practicing as a team in the off-season on "their own"...Div 1 is a year-round deal. "Switch-everything" is as much zone concept as it is man. Furthermore, we stupid HS kids called these changes on our own on the floor in the middle of play-no coach calling from the bench-that is what practice was for. The switches were seamless and put each player in a position of greater advantage-it is not rocket science stuff...we did not simply switch randomly for the sake of switching-there were reads being made. With the athleticism of today's players and their ability to recover with a longer cross court pass to the back side of a zone, this would be a piece of cake. 

I will defend this to the end...because the principles remain sound and correct. Just because teams are not doing it does not mean that they shouldn't be. Too often conventional wisdom is more about  being unaware or being lazy and stupid...following the path of least resistance. We won when we had no business to...and it was a riot-for us.

BTW, we played a lot of man too...but there is a time and a place for everything...our coach operated under a philosophy that attempted to make the other team expend more energy than we did.


January 15th, 2019 at 5:46 PM ^

Actually, you, yourself, gave the answer to why this isn't done in college -- it didn't work against the most-skilled opponent on your schedule.  The talent gap narrows as you go up the ladder.  College offenses tear up the zone, relatively speaking, because they're better than high school offenses.

You should read the article, if you haven't already.  KenPom has been one of the leaders of college basketball analytics, which is basically nothing but challenging conventional wisdom.  Sometimes, conventional wisdom is wrong -- but sometimes it's right.  In this case, the numbers make the case that man is probably more effective in the modern college game than zone, because man is better at preventing three-point shots from being attempted.

The article does point out one thing for which there's no control: some teams (e.g., Syracuse) play zone because they want to, and others do so because they have no choice -- the coach doesn't feel his players are athletic enough to play man.  You can't go back and figure out Syracuse's winning percentage if they were to play man.


January 15th, 2019 at 5:56 PM ^

You realize they added this arcing line to the court about 30 years ago that awards the offense 3 points for a shot behind that line, right?  And that pretty much every guy on college teams is good at shooting from behind that line these days, right?

That's why defenses don't do what you did in HS 50 years ago.

Go for two

January 15th, 2019 at 6:15 PM ^

Need to be able to play both and adapt based on the team and the stage of the game. The best teams can adapt, the one dimensional teams get eliminated come the big dance