For those who follow me on twitter, I was blasting Wojo during the Nova game for using the zone. I thought it was killing our offense, making us weak on the boards and the only reason we weren’t losing by 30 was because Nova couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn that night.
Then a funny thing happened. We won. In the postgame, Wojo credited switching the defense to keep Nova off balance. I’ll admit, I gotta little drunk off that win. Thought we were better than we were. I bought into the zone because we had beaten Nova with it. I even advocated for it hard during the St. John’s embarrassment because they are undisciplined and more athletic than us.
We all know what’s happened since the Nova game. 1-4, including two ugly road blow outs to bottom of the conference teams. What might not be so obvious is how our performance has changed during that stretch. Let’s look at some of MU stats against high major opponents before the Villanova game.
Opponent eFG%: 55.2%
3P per Game: 10.3
3PA per Game: 24.8
Opponent TO%: 18.4%
Opponent TPG 13.1
Possessions per Game: 71.52
Now, let’s look at those same stats for the 6 games since the zone has been introduced.
Opponent eFG%: 54.7%
3P per Game: 9.5
3PA per Game: 22.2
Opponent TO%: 14.7%
Possessions per Game: 68.1
For those who may not know, eFG% reigns supreme. It is by far the most important metric in determining the winner of a basketball game. This season, every Marquette game has been won by the team with the higher eFG%. The fact that introducing zone has increased their eFG% defense by 0.5% would tell you that the defense has gotten slightly better. However, it has come at the expense of the offense. Marquette is shooting 2.5% worse in terms of eFG%. That 3% swing in eFG% has changed Marquette from a tournament lock to barely clinging to an NCAA berth.
It would be tempting to say that the offense is the problem, not the defense. After all, the defense is still aggressively sub-par and the offense hasn’t been putting up the normal juice to simply outscore opponents. But this offensive slump is the product of a changed defensive strategy, namely the zone. While the zone has somewhat lessened opponent’s hot shooting, it has all but eliminated Marquette’s ability to create turnovers. A few short games ago, Marquette was leading the Big East in turnovers created. Now they have fallen to the middle of the pack and are trending downwards. Over the past 6 games, Marquette is forcing 3.1 less turnovers a game, which has lowered their opponent’s TO% by nearly 4%. Even worse, Marquette is forcing 3.9 less steals a game. Steals are more likely to result in transition offense than a regular turnover. Simply put, the zone is better at containing opponents but it is a lot less disruptive. Those transition baskets are vital to Marquette’s offensive success. This culminated at Georgetown where Marquette only had 2 fast break points…and they came in the first 2 minutes of the game. No player has been more affected by this than Jajuan Johnson. Trey J is often maligned by fans for being too aggressive on defense, but that has led him to be the top thief in the conference this season. During this six game stretch, JJJ has managed only three steals. He’s had double that in a single game this season…twice (Vandy and @HALL). He may give up some points due to his overagression, but the turnovers he produces are so much more valuable. He is the type of player than can get into an opponent’s head and a way needs to be found to get him thieving again.
Another area this is affecting is three-point shooting. Marquette has actually been more accurate from deep over the past six games, shooting an impressive 42.9% from beyond the arc (though it drops to 37.7% if you take out the win against DePaul). What has gone down is the rate of those long balls. Marquette is shooting nearly 3 less threes a game during this losing streak. Part of that can be contributed to solid defensive game planning by opposing coaches, but part of it is the lack of transition opportunities. Marquette is still one of the deadliest shooting teams in the country and the most open shots they will ever get are the threes in transition. Without those opportunities, the offense has been unable to go on runs.
Finally, the zone has slowed the pace of the game. Marquette entered this streak as one of the fastest teams in the nation, top 25 in adjusted tempo per KenPom. They have since fallen to 84th. Their current pace of 68.1 possessions per game would put them in the bottom 150 in terms of tempo. The zone defense extends possessions and limits them by forcing less turnovers. By playing slower, Marquette is hurting its ability to run, gun, and outscore opponents. It’s the equivalent of a football team losing because their defense can’t get off the field.
Essentially, Marquette has let itself get away from their identity. It may not be pretty and the defense may make you want to tear your hair out, but Marquette is at its best when it is a high octane, fast paced, every game is a shootout, win by outscoring type squad. The zone was trotted out to fix a porous defense and it sort of worked. But it’s not who we are, and it’s not a way we can win. It is time to kill the zone. Bring back the man full time. Work zone in a few possessions a game at most just as a change of pace. The one exception might be the St. John’s game just because they are so undisciplined but so much more athletic. We might give up 85 points a game but it will be ok because we will score 86. In the end, the NCAA bid is still there for the taking. Every game left could be a loss, but they are all winnable. Kill the zone, release the offense and Marquette will be dancing again.