One statistic in particular stood out to me following Kansas’ 64-59 loss in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight: After carving up zone defenses all season, KU scored six points in 15 possessions against Villanova’s 2-3 matchup set.
Over time, KU coach Bill Self’s offenses have had common characteristics, as they typically play unselfishly, make each other better and are great passing teams inside.
After watching all 15 possessions with a college basketball coach, it became immediately apparent that Villanova’s prepared players had accomplished an unlikely feat with their 2-3 matchup zone, disrupting the Jayhawks’ rhythm while forcing selfish decisions in the season’s most important game.
Here are a few examples when Villanova’s zone defense flummoxed KU.
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15:07 first half: Kansas 7, Villanova 6
This was the first time Villanova went to its zone against KU, so let’s take a closer look at what the Wildcats were trying to do.
First, it’s important to note the difference between a regular 2-3 zone and a matchup zone. We can see in the clip below that Villanova’s players are standing in designated locations, but they are actually picking up players man-to-man in their areas. This is a matchup zone, and we can see Villanova does a good job of communicating when KU’s players are cutting as well.
Villanova also does something that immediately gives KU problems: It moves center Daniel Ochefu up the floor to take away the high post.
Typically, when going against a typical 2-3 zone, KU attacks by yo-yoing its forwards from the short corner to the high post. Getting the ball to the high post often is one of the best ways to beat a zone, as the set collapses around the player and leaves numerous openings.
KU’s big men flash to the high post here, only it doesn’t work. Ochefu takes a few steps forward to deny the high-post pass to Jamari Traylor before stepping forward and denying the high-post pass to Perry Ellis.
It’s obvious KU isn’t prepared for this look. There isn’t much movement among guards nor is there quick passing, which can break down a zone.
KU fails to get the ball inside the three-point arc the entire possession before settling on a perimeter-pass three-point attempt from Devonte’ Graham. Defensively, this is what you want to surrender if you’re playing zone … the more dangerous threes are the ones that come from inside passes, as shooters’ bodies are squared to the rim and most practice shots are taken with passes coming from the lane.
Villanova gets the best of KU on this possession, which means it’s time for the Jayhawks to adjust. One of the difficult parts about going against a matchup zone is that scoring opportunities often come quickly and are the result of quick passing, effective ball screens and players using basketball IQ to create scoring opportunities.
In some ways, Villanova coach Jay Wright is setting up an advantage because he’s taking away one of KU’s great offensive strengths: This particular zone will force KU’s players to make reads on their own without Self being able to save them with savvy X’s and O’s.
14:23 left in first half: Villanova 8, Kansas 7
KU’s discomfort against the zone shows early in this play, as guard Frank Mason dribbles once and fakes three passes, needing four seconds before he gets rid of the ball. This is what Self talks about when he often talks about the ball “sticking,” and this hurts KU because it costs the team an opportunity to shift the defense.
Traylor sets a ball screen (an oftentimes effective play against matchup zones), but there is one potential issue. Because Traylor isn’t a threat to shoot, Villanova basically ignores him on the perimeter. If, say, Ellis sets that screen, he would have an opportunity to float back to the perimeter for a wide-open, pick-and-pop three.
The other option would be for Traylor to follow with a pindown screen for Frank Mason. This potentially could open up the 38-percent three-point shooter for a kickout three.
As we see, though, KU’s players already are starting to press. Wayne Selden comes around the ball screen and decides to attack the 6-foot-11 Ochefu for a contested 15-footer in the lane with 19 seconds left on the shot clock — a two-point attempt Villanova is happy to give up.
There were three better options for Selden:
1. Kick to Ellis (who had smartly faded to the corner) for an open three-point attempt
2. Throw back to Mason for an inside-out pass and three-point attempt
3. Make a simple pass to someone else to try to keep the ball moving in hopes of a better shot
Instead, Selden is trying so hard to score and single-handedly help KU that he forces up something that isn’t there. The unexpected attempt also gives the Jayhawks’ other players little time to go for a potential offensive rebound.
Villanova’s zone defense is 2-for-2.
11:04 left in first half, Kansas 14, Villanova 12
KU’s third possession against the 2-3 ended in a turnover (Traylor had a moving screen), and note something important early in this possession: Villanova is often extending three-quarters court with its guards in what is known as a “tempo press.” The goal here isn’t to get KU to turn it over; instead, it’s to burn time so the Jayhawks have fewer seconds to move the ball against the zone.
The weakness of most zone defenses is that they can’t sustain over long periods of time, especially if the offensive team keeps moving the ball quickly. By putting on this press, Wright is forcing KU to initiate offense with 23 seconds left instead of 27 or 28.
KU once again is trying to attack the zone with ball screens, but teammates aren’t on the same page. Carlton Bragg twice tries to set ball screens, but both Mason and Svi Mykhailiuk don’t use them.
Even without that, take a look at the defense when Mykhailiuk gets the ball on the left wing.
Four Villanova defenders are crowded on that end of the court. If KU can simply complete two quick passes (one to Mason, one to Selden), the defense won’t be able to adjust quickly enough, which should leave a few options open.
Mykhailiuk passes to Mason, but once again, the ball is sticky. Mason fakes a pass, squares up and fakes another pass, which gives Villanova’s defense time to recover.
He finally does get it to Selden, and this possession still has a chance at success.
Selden has Kris Jenkins closing out on him late. With a pump fake and dribble, the baseline appears to be wide open for a drive. Lucas also is sealing the back defender, meaning a pass might be available there too.
Instead, Selden puts up a contested, perimeter-pass three-pointer with 17 seconds on the shot clock.
Villanova’s defense has again forced KU into a difficult shot.
8:07 left in first half, Villanova 17, Kansas 16
We talked earlier about Wright trying to take Self out of this game offensively. Of course, after four empty possessions against the zone, it’s not surprising that Self would try one of his team’s set plays.
The only problem? Villanova has done its homework and is ready.
The giveaway is KU’s big men stacked in the lane together. Lucas attempts to screen the middle man in the zone to clear Ellis, which would work if Villanova wasn’t expecting it. Jenkins immediately steps up to guard Ellis, while forward Darryl Reynolds recovers quickly for a double-team. The result is a jump ball, which turns it over to Villanova.
The Wildcats react even better to this play during a crucial moment in the second half, as Mikal Bridges comes all the way from the weak side to intercept a Graham pass intended for Ellis.
Villanova’s smarts showed through in crucial times, and even with only one day to prepare, Wright showed an ability to get his team ready against his team’s toughest opponent to date.
18:26 left in second half: Villanova 34, Kansas 29
A final play shows just how much Villanova’s zone defense had gotten KU out of sync.
Villanova’s Jalen Brunson gambles for a steal, and Graham does the correct thing by immediately driving to the basket.
This screenshot is a beauty for KU, with all sorts of good things possible. With Lucas sealing his man, Graham should have an open lane to the basket for a layup. If Josh Hart at the bottom shows strong help, it’s an easy kickout to Selden for an inside-out three-pointer.
After he takes a few dribbles, all five defenders crowd around Graham, which also leaves Mason waving his arm on the right wing for a potential open three-point attempt.
Instead, Graham hesitates, lets the defense catch up, then fires a somewhat-contested 15-footer from the elbow — an option worse than any of the three above.
It was just another example of KU’s offense — typically unselfish with players that make each other better — getting thrown off when it was forced away from its typical sets.
Though poor shooting and bad breaks had something to do with KU’s loss, Villanova also deserves credit.
It’s rare to get a Self-coached team into that kind of funk — and also into a position where the coach is limited in how he can help from the sideline.