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

Mike Young’s Wofford was the most efficient zone offense you hadn’t heard of

Basketball is a game left up to random chance more often than most of us would like to admit. Some nights, everything goes in; other nights, you can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Obviously, having great players limits the amount of variance here, but if you need quality three-point shooting to beat more talented teams, variance is part of the game. Most teams in America don’t recruit at Kentucky’s level; therefore, they need variance to shift in their favor.

I offer all of this up, because Wofford College in South Carolina got to experience variance first-hand frequently this past season. Some nights, you beat 2017 Final Four participant South Carolina by 20 on their home court thanks to 13 threes; other nights, you fall seven points shy of the Sweet Sixteen to Kentucky themselves because of a 29.6% outing from three. It’s simpler than it sounds, obviously, but this Wofford team, on an average night, would’ve gone to the Sweet Sixteen and further. Why? Because your average Division I college basketball team doesn’t shoot 41.4% from three:

Wofford started the season 121st in the KenPom ratings; they were projected to finish second in the Southern Conference behind UNC Greensboro. By no means was this a team anyone truly expected to be a big-time March threat, though most knew they could shoot the ball like crazy (40.9% 3PT% in 2017-18). What changed to turn this team in particular into the most successful Terrier team in school history? For one, they got a lot better at finding open opportunities inside the perimeter:

And they somehow got even better from behind the perimeter:

A Wofford offense that was already pretty good took off into supernova mode. KenPom’s box score database goes back to the 2001-02 season, which encompasses nearly all of Wofford’s time in Division I. The 2018-19 Terriers hold three of the program’s five most efficient offensive outings to date, with the Citadel being an unfortunate recipient of two of the games. The opponent almost didn’t matter: Wofford dropped a 1.272 PPP night on 29-win UNC Greensboro, 1.228 PPP on 5-seed Mississippi State, 1.208 PPP on first-round NCAA Tournament opponent Seton Hall, and more. If you were in their way, they didn’t care to shove you off the path:

Like the other two teams on this list, Wofford was excellent against any type of defense. It didn’t matter what you threw at them; it was going to get shredded. However, some brave souls – largely VMI and the Citadel, but others, too – tried to run a zone against one of the best shooting offenses in America. You can take a wild guess as to how this worked out. Against zones, Wofford tossed up a 1.169 PPP, per Synergy, the second-best PPP in any level of college basketball in 2018-19.

Against an average man defense in half-court, Wofford’s game was heavily built around running Fletcher Magee and Nathan Hoover to off-ball screens for open threes. Unsurprisingly, this worked pretty well: Magee now holds the NCAA’s all-time record for threes in a career, while Hoover shot 47.5% from three and hit 8 of his 12 threes in the NCAA Tournament. Against a zone, it requires a little more patience and less off-ball screen opportunities. However, Mike Young and staff frequently found ways to exploit their massive shooting advantage:

Even in the NCAA Tournament, where the competition is turned up and the opponent has poured their soul into scouting you properly, Young was able to get his shooters the ball in plus situations:

However, focusing on just Magee and Hoover would ignore the efforts of the rest of the team. A good zone offense requires movement, stretching the floor, and exploiting the weak areas of the defensive alignment. Because Wofford’s most common five-man lineup featured a complete non-factor from deep (Keve Aluma) and a center that went two months without hitting a three (Cameron Jackson), this could’ve proved difficult. This is where having the individual gravity of great perimeter shooters lends its hand to excellent interior opportunities:

What Wofford couldn’t do as well in 2017-18 (50.9% 2PT%, 140th-best) was now available in 2018-19 (53.9% 2PT%, 43rd). Quality floor spacing and stretching allowed the Terriers to shoot 2.5% better on attempts at the rim on more attempts per game. That may not sound like much, but the Terriers made 116 more shots at the rim this past season compared to 2017-18. That’s 6.6 extra points at the rim on average each game! Pretty good.

Aside from that, Wofford ran essentially the same offense they ran the entire time under Mike Young. Their motion offense, also described as a “spread” offense in football terms, was reliant on quality spacing and having guards that could destroy an opponent from three. As mentioned previously, they did this very well:

Among Division I teams in 2018-19, Wofford was one of two teams (UL-Monroe) in the nation to finish top 10 in 3PT% and top 50 in 3PA% (percentage of threes to twos). To do that when every opponent knows you’re a guard-dominant team and can scout what you’re doing is difficult; to do it starting every game with two mostly non-shooters makes it near impossible. And yet, Wofford did it nightly. Over a 16-game stretch from January to mid-March, Wofford went under 1.14 PPP just once – the SoCon Championship Game versus UNC Greensboro. Even then, they were still getting great looks:

Dissecting the Wofford defense isn’t true rocket science; a whole bunch of teams out there run a perimeter-oriented motion offense these days. However, any and all teams who struggle with spacing should pay attention to how Wofford does it. Look again at that second-half Magee three against Seton Hall:

Wofford gets comfortable in their half-court setting against the loose Seton Hall zone, stretching the defense out by passing the ball nearly 30 feet from the basket after entry. Storm Murphy (49% 3PT%) gets it over to Keve Aluma (0-1 3PT), who’s not a serious threat but has drawn his man out to the perimeter. Notice how no player is currently in the paint; obviously, there’s no problem with having one player in there, if not two. Anyway, watch how Magee hangs out near the rim, drawing some attention down low away from the ball. Jackson stays in the mid-range, setting an off-ball screen for Magee to cut to the corner from. Because of how well Wofford has stretched this zone and Jackson’s solid screen, Magee pulls up before the defender can even think to jump. Wofford never trailed again after this play.

For some, the solution to beating a zone is obvious: you need guys that can hit open shots. Not every team has that, and even the best teams in the world can fail to roster them; see 2018-19 Duke. You desperately need quality perimeter shooting to be able to stretch a zone defense thin. As a small digression, think of the one zone defense that immediately comes to your mind in D-1 basketball. It’s Syracuse, right? Baylor beat a Syracuse team that, on average, was slightly better than them in the first round this past season. Why? Because Baylor hit 16 threes, most of them open, thanks to having six players in their seven-man rotation that could competently shoot threes.

Obviously, this all falls down if you can’t hit open threes. Even great teams have bad shooting nights, like Wofford did against Kentucky. However, the first step to hitting the open three is getting the open three in the first place. Wofford was really impressive at this, hitting 46.5% of their three-point attempts against zone defenses in 2018-19. (That’s 7.2% higher than their hit rate against man on a few hundred more attempts, so sample size warning.) While you may not roster the future NCAA leader in three-point makes, you likely have a few good shooters on your team. Use them, stretch the zone, and look for openings with quality passing. Zones aren’t scary, but making a lot of threes over them sure scares opponents.

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