Attacking the 2-3 zone

Editor's Note: Throughout the 2002-03 season, ESPN's Fran Fraschilla took us inside the Xs and Os of college basketball. Here is his look at how Texas will try to attack Syracuse's 2-3 zone in Saturday's semifinal.

Texas might as well throw out any offense it uses to attack a man-to-man defense. To get to Monday's title game, the Longhorns must solve Syracuse's 2-3 zone. Or, at least, find enough ways to score against five Orangemen working as one.

The goal of any zone offense is not to just get uncontested shots. Syracuse will allow Texas to get open shots. But Texas must make good choices when it comes to taking "open" shots. It's up to Texas to take and create shots it can make, or a shot with the opportunity to get fouled. And, at worst, a shot James Thomas and company can rebound.

It will be particularly important for Texas to get the ball inside the Syracuse 2-3 zone. It's there where Texas can beat the zone's strengths and also demoralize the Orangemen.

Any team plays zone for three main reasons:
1. The team is strong inside.
2. The opponent is a weak outside shooting team.
3. The zone allows a team to change the flow and tempo of the game.

But, whenever a team can get the ball inside -- to the "heart" of the zone -- it is a psychological blow to the team playing a zone defense.

When we talk about attacking the zone, the first thing any offense must do is recognize just what type of zone a defense is playing. Against Syracuse, that's pretty simple. The Orange play a straight 2-3 zone. But, it's also important for Texas' players know the slides of each zone, or how it moves against an offense. Make no mistake, the Longhorns will know by Saturday night how to react when the Syracuse zone "slides" from one side of the court to the other.

Once Texas recognizes the Syracuse zone alignments, it can position its players in the gaps of the zone. Look at how the Longhorns position Brian Boddicker, Royal Ivey, Brandon Mouton and James Thomas against the Orangemen's 2-3 zone. When T.J. Ford has the ball (1), there should never be anyone in front of the Longhorns' offense. Look for the Longhorns to align themselves in a 1-2-2 or 1-3-1 set against Syracuse, with Mouton and Ivey on the wings and the forwards Thomas and Boddicker looking for low-post position.

Once Texas has a feel for Syracuse's movement within its zone, it must move the ball and its players quickly to take the zone out of its shape and make the Orange slide longer within their zone. The "skip pass" or cross-court pass is a great way to make the zone run. On those rare ocasions when Ford doesn't have the ball, look for Ivey (2) and Mouton (3), along with the other Texas wing players, to attack the zone with a skip pass.

But, for Texas to be effective against Syracuse, the ball must move faster than the slides of the zone. And, by putting the zone to work, the Longhorns eventually can break the zone down. It won't be easy, it may take four or five ball reversals before a crack in the zone appears, but it's important to recognize that the quality of Texas' shots against Syracuse will be in direct proportion to the quality of its passes.

While Syracuse's zone is among the most disciplined defenses in the country, a zone defense will usually react to pass fakes because it's geared to move on the flight of the ball. A good pass fake by Ford will move the zone just a little further away from the direction he really want to pass the ball. It also could open up lanes for him to drive. Ivey's good use of a hard shot fake can also get Carmelo Anthony or Hakeem Warrick on the edges of the zone to fly by, so that he can, at least temporarily, play the zone 5-on-4.

If Texas can get its players in the gaps of the zone, Syracuse will be forced to "play two", leaving the Longhorns with the advantage elsewhere on the court with Ford finding teammates like Thomas or Mouton open for good shots.

Another way to create "misdirection" against a zone -- where the ball looks like it is going one way, but is really going in the opposite direction -- is through the use of the dribble. Look for Texas to try to "overload" the Syracuse zone, with Ford (1) dribbling back out as Mouton (3) fills in behind him to the wing. In this instance, Buckman (5) must roll across the middle to occupy the center of the zone. This allows the Longhorn shooters to slide in behind on the "short corner" and get a great shot because the weak side of the zone has to be concerned with Mouton on the the wing.

Obviously, the best way for Texas to attack the 2-3 zone is by creating a one-on-one situation with Ford against a slower defender.

But, because the zone is geared toward guarding the ball, it's also possible for Texas to work people from behind the zone, where the Orange don't always see players. The key, however, is for Texas to never let the Orange backline defenders -- Forth and/or McNeil -- to see all five offensive players.

Here are some things Texas can do from behind the zone.

  • Ford can flash to the middle and look for the shot coming out of the inside-out pass.

  • Screen the back of the zone.

    Next, Texas can position players opposite for the offensive rebound off an outside shot. Basketball physics tells us that 70 percent of shots taken from one side of the court bounce to the opposite side. And, finally, Texas can be opposite of where the ball is, so that when the back side forward "bumps out" to help the guard on his side, The Longhorns can run someone to the "short corner". See how Texas could create a 2-on-1 against the back side forward.

    So, these are some principles to look for in Texas' zone offense. One of the great things about basketball is the ability, as a player and as a coach, to adjust during the course of the game. Look for that to happen on Saturday night. Also, remember, the Longhorns must "cut the zone's heart out" to beat the Orangemen.

    Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach before joining ESPN this season as an broadcast analyst. He guided both Manhattan (1993, 1995) and St. John's (1998) to the NCAA Tournament in his nine seasons as a Division I head coach, leaving New Mexico following the end of the 2001-02 season.