Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 6: Attacking a Zone

How Tennessee’s zone offense quietly became the most lethal in Division I

Full disclosure: I am a very big Tennessee basketball fan. I grew up in Tennessee, attended the University of Tennessee, and have cared about Tennessee basketball since I found out what it was at eight years old. As such, there’s an inherent bias I have to address. Yes, I think Tennessee’s offense was amazing in 2018-19. It was, quite simply, the best Volunteer offense I’ve seen in my entire life. Of course, it didn’t get there overnight.

This year’s team was led by future NBA Draft picks Grant Williams (junior), Admiral Schofield (senior), and Jordan Bone (junior). It was the second-oldest team Tennessee’s put on the floor for the NCAA Tournament in the last 25 years; unsurprisingly, it was also one of the most successful in school history. Every night, it seemed that a Tennessee player would do at least one amazing thing that caught your attention and made you realize something special was happening. Sometimes it was just a few plays; other nights, it was an entire game.

Aside from Grant Williams growing into a first-round draft pick, nothing shocked me more about Tennessee basketball in 2018-19 – and, for that matter, in 2017-18 – than its ability to dispatch of any zone defense it faced with ease:

Per Synergy, Tennessee scored 1.176 PPP against zone defenses on 357 possessions in 2018-19. If that’s a lot to take in at once, think of it this way: the distance from Tennessee to third-place Gonzaga (1.105 PPP; +0.071) was the same as the distance from Gonzaga to 15th-place Citadel in D-1. Tennessee simply made you look like idiots for even thinking about a zone defense. This was weird, because the Vols were not exactly known for lights out three-point shooting, which normally prevents opponents from running a zone. True, Tennessee hit 36.7% of their threes, good enough for 63rd-best in D-1, but this was on one of the lowest three-point attempt rates in Division I. Among the 68 NCAA Tournament teams, Tennessee ranked 63rd in percentage of points from threes.

In turn, Tennessee’s least-used shooting capability became incredibly important against zone defenses; 39.6% of their field goal attempts against zones were from three. Pal, did Tennessee ever take advantage of that:

Tennessee merely made 46.4% of their threes against zones, an unsustainable rate that nonetheless suggests they knew exactly how to break down any type of unusual defense thrown against them. In both of their first two NCAA Tournament games, opponents Colgate and Iowa ran out a zone against them for around half of Tennessee’s offensive possessions. Colgate’s 3-2 zone was unlike anything Tennessee played against this season. Despite a few open misses, Tennessee largely had success against it:

In the Round of 32, most remember Tennessee nearly blowing a 25-point lead to Iowa before recovering in overtime to move on to the Sweet Sixteen. Again, of less memory is just how well Tennessee shredded the Iowa zone in the first half of the game:

By halftime, Tennessee had dumped 1.32 PPP on the Hawkeyes zone; it took the Vols missing several wide-open looks (and poor defense, of course) for the comeback to happen in the second half. What worked so well for Tennessee worked for them throughout the course of the season: constant paint penetration through their motion offense, followed by either an attempt inside the perimeter or a kickout to an open shooter:

What Tennessee was doing wasn’t entirely new, of course; they’ve run the same motion offense since Rick Barnes got here in 2015. Plus, the zone offense was already in the 96th-percentile nationally in 2017-18. The problem: it wasn’t nearly as efficient the rest of the time. Against man defenses in 2017-18, Tennessee ranked in just the 64th-percentile in America, finishing the year 36th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. That’s not bad, certainly, but as a fan, it was clear the offense was holding the team back. Tennessee finished that season 278th in 2PT%, and their inability to get those interior points was a key factor in their Round of 32 loss to Loyola Chicago.

Fast forward one year, and it was like an entirely different team:

From the start of the season onward, it felt like Tennessee hit every single shot within 15 feet of the basket. The Volunteers rocketed skywards from 278th to 22nd in 2PT%, the largest jump in D-1 as far as I could find. Part of it helps when your already-very-good SEC Player of the Year turns into a first-round pick overnight. Grant Williams, who was pretty darn good in 2017-18, became the best Tennessee player in at least 25 years in 2018-19. Whenever he was on the floor, the gravity he drew made Tennessee’s offense near-impossible to slow down; Tennessee outscored opponents by a full point every 2.8 minutes when Williams was on the floor, per Stat House Analytics.

The disclaimer here is that I’m 25 years old and, as a result, haven’t seen as much basketball as I’d like to say I have. That said, Grant Williams remains the most effective interior scorer I’ve ever seen in a Tennessee uniform:

Tennessee got 55.3% of their points inside the perimeter this past season, the second-most among the 68 NCAA Tournament teams behind Duke. It was because of players like Williams:

And Kyle Alexander, an underrated interior monster:

That Tennessee could be so dominant. While Barnes’ offense is relatively simple to pick up on, it was certainly hard to stop. If Jordan Bone was unable to create a scoring opportunity in transition, he’d pull the ball back out and flow into Tennessee’s half-court motion offense. Several of these half-court sets were initiated by Bone setting up on the perimeter, letting a screener come to him, and working from there. Bone’s mid-range pull-up game is something every guard can aspire to achieve:

While ESPN’s insistence on covering Duke in the middle of a game between Arkansas and Tennessee shows up in this clip, you can see Tennessee’s ideal offense happening. Turner brings the ball up quickly, probes inside the perimeter, and backs out to set up the offense. Tennessee spreads the floor, swinging the ball around the perimeter. The only player who enters the paint is backup center John Fulkerson; Grant Williams draws attention to the corner, just inside the perimeter. The ball is reversed twice, which allows for Yves Pons to get it to Jordan Bowden to get it to Lamonte Turner with relative ease. Turner, a career 35.2% 3PT% shooter, may not sound like a sure thing, but he has options here: he can either take a fairly open three, hit Fulkerson on a cut to the paint, or fake the shot and dribble through. He takes the first, and it works out well:

The nice thing abut Tennessee’s offense in a setting like this is all of the options it does provide. In this one, Tennessee uses an on-ball screen, but it’s not for Jordan Bone to get to the mid-range for his beloved pull-up jumper. Tennessee spreads the floor with a 4-out look against Samford’s hybrid zone, leaving just Kyle Alexander inside the perimeter permanently. Admiral Schofield runs out to set the screen and backs his man down after, creating a 1-on-1 look for Bone to dribble into. Bone pulls back, drawing in Schofield’s defender. Now, Tennessee has it 4-on-3. Like Turner, Bone has a few options: he can hit Schofield, who’s headed to the rim; Schofield himself could pass it to a then-open Alexander; or, alternately, he can look to his left and see that Schofield’s slip of the screen has forced Jordan Bowden’s defender away from Bowden. Now, a player that’s shot 38.2% from three over his last two seasons gets a clean look for a three:

One more, and it’s the most beloved play against a zone in college basketball. Many teams run some variation of this. I don’t know what Tennessee calls it, but Jordan Sperber has dubbed it Zone America. To start, Tennessee gets in a 3-out, 2-in look. Jordan Bone sends it over to Jordan Bowden. Bone trades places with Admiral Schofield to get Bone, the team’s best passer, to the left wing. Bowden swings it back to Schofield, who gets it to Bone. After Bowden gets the ball away, he heads inside for what normally would look like a Bowden three reversal: running through the paint off of a screen for an open look from Bone against Colgate’s 3-2 zone. Instead, Tennessee runs a play designed for Bowden’s astounding athleticism. Kyle Alexander sets a screen on his own man in the paint, while Grant Williams pretends to post up to draw attention from his defender to Bone. All the while, Bowden is running untouched to the rim for one of the easiest lob plays you’ll see:

Both objectively and subjectively, this was the best Tennessee offense of my lifetime. It was easily the most fun to watch, even though they went against my number-one personal rule: don’t shoot more mid-range shots than you have to. The difference is that Tennessee actually hit those shots, which allowed me to let go of my anti-17-footer bias that plagued 2017-18. Tennessee didn’t often need to hit threes, but they were one of the best teams out there at hitting them when they were needed most. As the cherry on top, Tennessee was massively efficient at the rim, making 66% of all attempts.

The best thing about this offense is that, largely, there don’t appear to be a ton of set plays. As a partial observer, Barnes typically lets his team just run in and out of the motion offense for significant stretches of time. (I like to call these “green flag runs.”) Late in games where necessary, he’ll call out plays, but it’s typically up to the players to take advantage of what’s in front of them. He’s good at allowing the roster to get creative, have fun, and play up to their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Isn’t that what basketball is all about?

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