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The Anatomy of the Hoosiers 2-3 Zone Defense

First of all, I disapprove of zone defense. Do I get it? Yeah, but I’m still not a fan. I coached a 7th grade basketball team this winter and it took me nearly half the season to reluctantly switch from a man to a zone, even though it was obvious we were physically outmatched from day 1. But, that anecdote right there explains the greatest value in a zone defense and specifically a 2-3 zone defense.

A 2-3 zone is mostly used by a team that is physically outmatched defensively and needs some way to try and stem the tide of perimeter slashers. A 2-3 zone is designed to protect the lane at all costs and force a team to shoot over the top of your perimeter guards to score. As of recently that has worked out very well for the Hoosiers as their most recent competition has not been notoriously good shooting teams. We see this in not only low shooting percentages from the opposing teams, but also a large foul differential when the game is over.

What you will see when you pay attention to Indiana’s switch from man to zone is that the dribble penetration by wings and points drops considerably. As much as we love Jordan Hulls, in a man situation with a quick lateral guard he just struggles to match up. The 2-3 gives him and other defenders help with dealing with slashing guards and wings. On the flip side, Indiana also has personnel like Victor Oladipo who is quick, aggressive and athletic. The 2-3 increases his ability to make a defensive effort as well without jeopardizing the team defense. In essence, though I hate zone defense, the 2-3 is nearly perfect for the personnel that Indiana posses.

In a 2-3 you have two players at the elbows and three players down low in the post. The big man sets up in the lane and uses his wingspan to guard a large area, while your larger forwards are in charge of taking care of everything outside the lane and below the free throw line. This is where the 2-3 is at its weakest. That is a large area to guard for one man on each side of the court. The chinks in the armor of a 2-3 are on the wings extending from the free throw line, the high post and the "Verdell Spots" (pretend there is a 15ft arc around the court at the free throw line. Verdell spots are those 15 foot pull up jumpers just a few feet to the left and right of the actual free throw line.)

Good passing and patient offenses can exploit these points with good ball movement, as the defense must constantly rotate to cover everyone. Thus leaving them vulnerable to the weak side (side of the court the ball isn’t on) skip pass. Any patient offense knows to rotate the ball around the perimeter and probe the defense until the 2-3 overcommits and leaves a man standing alone on the other side of the court. Good coaches know how to exploit this in 35 seconds, better coaches know how to defensively rotate their players to outlast the offense.



Take a look at the above picture. This is a good example of what most college coaches will do to try and beat the 2-3 and force the defense to overload one side. The arrows show how the defense should rotate to combat the offense. As you see in the diagram, the offense is trying to exploit every weak spot in the zone. They have two wing players set out wide, they’ve brought a player into the high post and they have a man on the block on the ball side posting up. The man in the high post forces a decision on Zeller at the 5 spot. Does he commit high to guard the free throw line and leave the post player in a advantageous match-up position against a forward or does he protect the rim and leave the high post vulnerable? This is where rotation is key.

Zeller should always and I repeat ALWAYS stay down and guard the man posting up. As the arrows show in the diagram, Zeller will shield the pass up the lane and Watford (3) will rotate over to help on the high post. In the meantime, if that wing pass is made Hulls (1) steps over to cover the wing with the ball and Oladipo (2) stays back to front the high post player. In this instance, Elston (4) likely steps out to help trap 2 and force him to get rid of the ball.

As he passes back to 1, Elston slides back down to help on 4, Oladipo jumps to the pass at 1. Hulls slides back into the lane to help Oladipo in case 1 drives and Watford slides back towards 3 to help. If the quick swing pass is made to the 3 it is Watford’s job to get out there to get a hand in his face until Oladipo can get over to help. Then Watford drops back down to his spot while Oladipo covers 3, Hulls fronts 5, Zeller covers 4 coming across the lane and Elston is on the back side to help out.

As you can see, in just that one very specific instance, there are a ton of moving parts in a 2-3 zone and every player must know his role or the defense becomes useless. There is nothing more team oriented than trying to play a zone and if one guy doesn’t know his role, the whole thing will collapse. Rotation is key and court awareness is mandatory to keep guys from sliding in behind you for easy lay-ups and alley oops. However, a team that effectively runs a zone can frustrate an offense to no extent. There is a reason that the 2-3 is called the great equalizer. It doesn’t necessarily take athletes to guard athletes and it protects your post players from dumb fouls because the guards let their man get by them.

In the end, I’ll begrudgingly admit that the 2-3 is the perfect defense for Indiana’s personnel and even with a little more practice in rotating properly it could become a staple in the future. As the roster gets quicker and more athletic in the future the 2-3 can become an offensive through defense tool. Long quick players can trap on the perimeter and generally force turnovers through incredibly high pressure and force the pace into a transitional game. If that comes to fruition maybe, just maybe, Tom Crean will get some defensive approval from some of the basketball purists (me) that claim man defense is the only way to play defense.