Should Marquette play more zone?

Cain defense

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Even before Markus Howard went down, Marquette’s prospects for winning were dim. The offense had cooled off and the defense was in full All-Star game form. To put it in quantifiable terms, Marquette’s win probability on KenPom was 9.6% after Howard’s fall, a level that had only produced one prior MU win this season, and never so early in the game. 

So Howard’s injury wasn’t so much an obstacle to overcome but the final nail on the coffin of once promising season come to an end. And then it wasn’t.

It doesn’t take much digging to find the cause for the drastic change. It was the zone. No ifs, and, or buts about it, the 2-3 zone defense cut off the driving lanes and neutralized the pick and roll. Marquette dared Creighton to beat them with jumpshots, a gamble that paid off quite handsomely. 

Like I said, you don’t need numbers to back up those assertions, they were that obvious, but the numbers are indeed fascinating. Here is how Synergy categorized it:

Vs. Man

Possessions: 32
Points: 45
PPP: 1.406

Vs. Zone

Possessions: 29
Points: 28
PPP: 0.966

As enlightening and eye-popping as this is, it still doesn’t do justice to just how effective the zone was after the players settled in to their defensive roles. Creighton scored 3 points in 1 possession against the zone in the first half and 6 points in the first 4 possessions of the second half against zone. So if you take away those 9 points and 5 possessions, Marquette gave up 19 points in 24 possessions, a PPP of .792. 

If you’re having trouble digesting these numbers, realize that Virginia is allowing .859 PPP on the season. Obviously this was only a portion of one half, and didn’t include transition buckets where the defense doesn’t get set up, so don’t mistake that reference as me saying the defense was better than Virginia’s. Simply speaking, the second half zone, once it settled in, was marvelous and the sole reason Marquette was able to get back in the game. 

But this led to the question I keep getting on Twitter and have been getting for a few weeks now: Why did it take so long/why didn’t Marquette try it earlier in the season? My answer hasn’t wavered and will not change, ever. You can’t play a 2-3 zone, or really any zone, well with two sub-6 foot guards in the lineup. 

Don’t just take my word for it. As hard as it is to believe, Marquette was actually worse playing a zone than in man-to-man defense. 

And despite what Creighton fans might tell you, the Jays are quite proficient against zone defenses, scoring 1.055 PPP, in the 91st percentile.  (Their PPP against man is 1.057, so almost no drop off whatsoever.) So it didn’t quite make sense to use a “weaker” defense against a team that handles that defense well. 

Again, the whole issue stems from Marquette not having the length necessary to play a decent zone with two very small guards. What a zone does is give up space on the perimeter and near the FT line in exchange for preventing penetration. One of the biggest issues defensively is that both Howard and Rowsey are awful at preventing penetration, so you can see why it would be an enticing proposition. 

But what ends up happening, particularly in a 2-3 zone, is that ball handlers can easily pass over the top of both Howard and Rowsey to the free throw line, which scrambles the defense. And unlike a team like Syracuse who runs zone exclusively and has length at all 5 positions, Marquette doesn’t have the length, athleticism, or wingspan necessary to close out on open shooters and disrupt those shots. So a zone essentially turns into a gamble of will they or won’t they make open 3s. 

And this is another reason why Coach Wojo dislikes zone so much. KenPom has gone to long lengths to show that 3pt% is not a good barometer for measuring the efficacy of a defense. Essentially, defenses can’t really control how opponents shoot. What they can control is how often opponents shoot 3s, the most valuable shot in the game. 

Wojo has shown the last 2 seasons that one of his main defensive priorities is to prevent opponents from shooting 3s and Marquette ranks in the top 50 this season for 3PA/FGA with 32% of opponents FG attempts from behind the arc. When Marquette is in a zone, opponents have shot 3s on 34 of 74 possessions, so 45.9% of possessions (but only shot 35% in the process).  That’s why the bigs hedge ball handlers so high and guards and wings play so tight on the perimeter. Obviously this has not been anywhere near effective this season at preventing points, but you can clearly see what the plan is. 

Going back to the zone this season, Marquette had played 21 possessions with Howard and Rowsey both on the floor (a majority in 1-3-1) and given up 25 points. Again, our contention is that you can’t play those two together in a zone, and a 1.19 PPP pretty much hammers that home. With those two averaging 23+ floor minutes together, that didn’t leave much time for zone. 

And even then, the zone wasn’t a magic elixir. Prior to Saturday, MU had played 24 possessions in zone with 1 or none of Howard and Rowsey on the floor and given up 24 points, a 1.0 PPP. If you take away the 10 garbage time zone possesions against a dreadful Chicago State, MU allowed 17 points in 14 possessions, an abhorrent 1.24 PPP. 

The sample size is tiny, but it’s not a mystery why Wojo hadn’t resorted to zone. You can’t play it with the best offensive weapons both out there, and the possible replacements had been worse in short stints.   

But with Howard out and Creighton abusing Marquette on the pick and roll, Wojo put one last coin in the machine and hit the jackpot. So that brings us to the main question, what should Marquette do going forward?

With Howard likely out vs. St. John’s with a hip contusion, and the Johnnies being a generally poor shooting outside teams, I’d expect to see a majority of the game in zone. And I think the zone is here to stay for the rest of the season. Again, just saying zone doesn’t mean a defense that’s one of the worst in the country will somehow transform into a formidable unit. But one thing that the zone will make a night and day difference on is the amount of times Marquette fouls and the number of free throws opponents will shoot. 

Marquette is the worst team in the Big East when it comes to free throw rate, and is one of the ten worst teams in the country at “free-throw defense,” with opponents shooting 75.4% at the line. That is not to say zones stop defenders from fouling, but it does decrease penetration, which should help keep Rowsey out of foul trouble. Marquette only committed 5 fouls against Creighton in the 2nd half compared to 10 in the first half. Again, with Howard out, keeping Rowsey on the court at all times is essential. He personally had 3 fouls in the first half and none in the 2nd. 

One last time for those in the back. A zone isn’t necessarily going to make Marquette better defensively. An opponent with a great PG like Brunson or Cartwright can carve up a zone with ease. An opponent with multiple 3-point threats will have plenty of opportunities to get hot. An opponent with good rebounders can feast on the offensive glass. An opponent with a mobile big that can hit 15-footers will get open shot after open shot. 

But we’ve seen Marquette fail to stop anyone in man over and over and over again. To go back down that well makes no sense. Even when Howard comes back, I think zone gives this team the best chance of winning. If that means having to split up Howard and Rowsey for all but 10 or so minutes, I’m even more in favor.  

Yes, that means having to play Elliott and Cain big minutes, as their long arms are vital in the zone. That means some ugly looking possessions on the other end and some poor rotations everywhere. But, Marquette still has its back against the wall, and running the table will still leave them around the cut line. If a zone gives them the best chance of winning, do that and worry about the rest later.   

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Categories: Analysis, Home, Synergy


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