Yesterday I was reading Luke Winn’s rationale for naming Kansas the top team in the country when I came across this:
The Jayhawks seem to be the elite team that’s least likely to see zone defenses this season. Of the members of the Undefeated Club, I’d zone Texas because it ranks 205th in the country in three-point shooting at 33.2 percent, and I’d zone Purdue because it’s even worse than Texas from long-range, ranking 262nd at 31.4 percent. Although Kentucky shoots the trey quite well (at 40.6 percent, 20th in the country), I’d consider zoning the ‘Cats just to contain point guard John Wall in dribble-drive and screen-and-roll situations. But why even try to zone Kansas? It ranks third in the country from distance (at 43.1 percent), and when it uses its “gunner” lineup, with Sherron Collins at the point, either Tyrel Reed or Brady Morningstar at the two, and Xavier Henry at the three, it’s scary against a 2-3 defense.
Here Luke is voicing one of the unquestioned verities of hoops, one that I myself use all the time: A zone defense forces the opponent to shoot more threes. But for some reason seeing this assumption spelled out so explicitly sent me running to my laptop to see if I’ve been right all this time.
Fortunately we have Syracuse. The Orangemen have been known to play a little 2-3 for, what, 87 years now. Does Jim Boeheim’s team really force opponents to shoot more threes than they otherwise would? You bet!
How to win possessions and influence opponents
Syracuse opponents: % of shots that are threes
Conference games only
3FGA/FGA (%) Big East avg.
2009 37.8 31.6
2008 39.5 33.2
2007 37.4 34.9
Syracuse opponents are indeed consistently more three-happy than your run of the mill Big East offense. And given that a conference game will feature about 60 field goal attempts from each team, these numbers mean that on average a ‘Cuse opponent will attempt four additional threes per 40 minutes.
That’s appreciable, but to me it underscores the extent to which even Syracuse will, like any defense, rise or fall largely according to how well they defend twos. Across three seasons where the Orangemen were consistently forcing opponents to take an extra three every ten minutes or so, the 2007 defense clearly stood out as exceptionally stingy because it was so good at making those same opponents miss their shots inside the arc (take a bow, Darryl Watkins).
Forcing an opponent that doesn’t like shooting threes to shoot four additional threes is a good thing, but it is of course just one factor in the mix. I happen to think the zone is weirdly under-utilized nationally; the very fact that it’s so seldom glimpsed means you can discomfit your opponent, at least momentarily, by wheeling it out. But even a relative zone-advocate like me will concede that good defenders will play good D no matter what scheme you use.