Weekly Pac-5: Zone Defenses

Posted by Adam Butler on January 27th, 2017

While the “beautiful game” is generally reserved for soccer (futbol), there is indubitably some innate beauty to this game of basketball. This season, UCLA has received a lot of hype surrounding its beautiful style. Its tempo, shot-making, passing, and creativity has captivated the nation. As recently as a week ago, they were the #3 team in college basketball, boasting the second most efficient offense of the KenPom era (2002). And now the Bruins have sustained two consecutive losses, most closely attributable to their defense. In one of those defeats, their offense remained spectacular. Arizona made a strategic decision to put some of its lock-down defenders on the Bruins’ peripheral players. They would let Lonzo Ball outscore them. He tried, valiantly, but couldn’t. USC, however, turned UCLA’s beautiful offense ugly. The Trojans’ zone defense forced the worst offensive performance (by efficiency measures) of UCLA’s season. USC has now won four straight over the Bruins.

USC Made UCLA Look Ugly Earlier This Week (USA Today Images)

As far as beautiful offense goes (consider a pure jumper splashing through the net in contrast with a great defensive stance), this will always be a two-way game. In considering aesthetics as well as USC’s disruption of UCLA’s beauty on Wednesday night, let’s explore how the Pac-12’s five most zone-enthusiastic defenses fare in executing this strategy (all data is acquired from Synergy Sports and enthusiasm is measured by total number of possessions played in zone).

For greater context, the average Division I defense gives up about 0.905 points per possession (PPP). Consider that number as you evaluate the strength of each of these zones.

  1. Oregon State – 580 zone possessions (45.4%), 0.886 PPP – Overall, the Beavers are just about an average defense, which is nice. They’re almost the worst offense in the sport, which is a topic for elsewhere. In summary, any defensive strategy that Wayne Tinkle employs is better with Gary Payton II (although it does seem this zone defense is at least effective).
  2. Oregon – 519 (38.6%), 0.759 – If we’re being honest, it doesn’t seem as if the play-loggers at Synergy know what to call Dana Altman‘s defense. I’m not saying I’m smarter than them but I surely don’t know what to call it. How about we call it “the conference’s highest rated defense (in conference games)?”
  3. USC – 509 (32.9%), 0.853 – This is the defense that made UCLA ugly.
  4. Utah – 350 (26.5%), 0.811 – Over the past four seasons when Utah has been good, this is the most zone Larry Krystkowiak teams have played (2016 – 17.0%, 2015 – 3.8%, 2014 – 11.7%).
  5. Washington – 234 (15.6%), 0.855 – Interestingly enough, while the Dawgs have been abysmal defensively, their effectiveness in the zone has been above average. Of course,  when you’re trying to play at a breakneck pace, zone isn’t usually going to help very much. And thus just 15 percent of Washington’s defense is spent in its more effective positioning.
Adam Butler (47 Posts)

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