IU’s zone wasn’t as bad as you think

Indiana’s 2-3 zone defense took a pounding across several forms of media during and immediately after Sunday’s game against Michigan State, and the fact that the Hoosiers won 75-70 for what is, to this point, their signature win of the season is the only reason it wasn’t worse. CBS analyst Greg Anthony said at the end of the half that the zone was “Michigan State’s best friend,” and numerous Twitter luminaries lamented the mixing of defense.

But when asked why he continued to use the zone on Sunday, IU coach Tom Crean said that he thought Indiana’s defensive problems had little to do with the zone, but more to do with moments when the Hoosiers were not as on point as they needed to be in the man-to-man.

“We played a little percentage,” Crean said after the game. “We played a little risk-reward there. There were certain things that we wanted to zone that they ran. Keep the game off-balance. And they did hit some shots, but the shots that they hit were more in our poor rotations. We had to change the post-double. That’s what I’m talking about with adjustments. We changed the post-double three times in the game. That’s a sign of a really good team. They kept answering it well. They just kept coming back with something different. … When Gary Harris was making his 3’s, it was in rotation as much as anything else.”

Crean was right, and the zone wasn’t nearly as much of a problem or as much of a reason why the game was close as many people thought.

Crean used the 2-3 for most of the night as a change of pace, especially in the first half. Indiana still spent the majority of the game in man-to-man. Michigan State had the ball for 65 possessions in the game. Eight of those were fast-break, transition possessions in which Indiana was never able to truly set a defense. Of the other 57, the Hoosiers went to zone 22 times and stayed strictly in man-to-man for 35. The zone possessions were spread evenly in the two halves — 11 in each. The Hoosiers went to man-to-man 23 times in the first half and 12 in the second.

There were a few occasions when the Spartans took advantage of poor zone awareness and took advantage of what the 2-3 was giving them, and  the optics of those plays were apparently ghastly enough to create the impression that it was bad the entire game. Michigan State forward Adreian Payne got an open look from above the zone with 16:15 to go in the first half and drilled it, then caught a lob pass from point guard Travis Trice with 1:06 to go in the half and dunked it behind his back.

But those were actually closer to the exception than the rule. For the game, Michigan State actually shot just 8-for-25 from the field against the zone while shooting 15-for-29 against straight man-to-man. They scored just 19 points against it (an average of .863 points per possession) and hit just three of 10 3-point attempts against it. Michigan State scored 41 points against the man-to-man (1.17 points per possession) and 10 in transition (eight on true fast breaks and two when Harris was fouled on a break.)

The Spartans were 8-for-13 from three against the man-to-man, meanwhile, thanks in large part to the reasons Crean cited. Of those eight 3-pointers, four came because the Hoosiers failed to cover shooters after double-teaming Michigan State center Derrick Nix in the post. Nix had assists on three of those 3-pointers.

Of Harris’s five 3-pointers, only one came against a zone defense, and that was on outstanding inbounds pass from the underneath the basket to where Harris was standing on the left wing for an easy catch-and-shoot 3. One of the others came in transition against man-to-man. Another came thanks to a well-set screen near the top of the key, and two early in the second half came off failed rotations on post double teams.

The zone also helped the Hoosiers because it kept them from fouling. Michigan State only shot six free throws in the game, and at no point did Indiana commit a shooting foul in the zone.

That’s not to say that the zone didn’t have its issues, or that man-to-man didn’t have its benefits. The man-to-man was a much bigger reason why the Hoosiers were able to cause 19 turnovers.  Thirteen of those came in man-to-man defense, including five of the nine steals. The zone caused four turnovers and Michigan State lost the ball twice in transition.

The zone also provided Michigan State better opportunities to offensive rebound. The Spartans had 12 offensive rebounds in the game, and seven of them came against the zone despite so many fewer possessions. However, the Spartans only had nine second-chance points in the game. Three of those came after a long rebound  went off an Indiana player out of bounds and the Hoosiers got to reset their defense. Two of the three Michigan State putbacks actually came against man-to-man defense.

The day before the game, Crean said he didn’t expect Sunday’s game to be a “conventional matchup game,” and said even then he expected to mix defenses to keep Michigan State off balance. Though there were a few occasions when soft spots in the zone were exposed, it appeared to serve its purpose.


  1. Thanks for the insight and information.

    Facts. I love em. But. Sometimes they get in the way of a great story.

    Coach knows what he’s doing. Its nice to be able to understand and have his info.

  2. Dustin, I appreciate this because I was knocking the zone and this put it in perspective for me. Is it awful I have worn 3 different IU basketball jerseys to work this week??? I will never forget that PU fan sitting in front of me in Assembly a few years ago…never!!! I hope we work over Purdue tonight!!!

  3. Yes fantastic…. I was sure the zone was hurting us, but the fact are facts. Now we need to beat PU. We need a 20 point win.

  4. Fantastic breakdown. please do more.
    Facts speak loudly and maybe (should be certainly, but I don’t hold out hope) it will educate a few fans about what Coach Crean sees and schemes for during the game. And he is right.
    One thing that was mentioned in the article was the zone kept IU from fouling. It also kept IU’s bigs from getting in foul trouble. MIchigan clearly has a deeper and stronger front court than IU. If Cody and Watford had to sit out extended minutes, it would have been very challenging for IU to stop MSU and to keep them off the boards. I actually suspect that Cody was playing a bit softer defense because of that concern–especially after he picked up a quick foul early.

  5. Dustin, great work! Are you a real journalist or a statistician? You have a bright future in either.

    First off, Spanky, you are spot on. Crean was in zone in the 1H precisely to protect our big guy, Z. No question about it and it was obvious to me from the get go. MSU is bigger than us & Izzo would’ve exploited it. The zone also helps the fast break as the guards can basically release on the shot. It didn’t work out that way in this game but that’s how it’s supposed to work.

    Another thing that makes a zone look bad is when the 3s get hit. In this game, we took at least 3 ill- advised, quick shots when we went up 9 in the 2H. Add a few TOs to those bad shots and Harris nailing 3 straight 3s of his, if I’m not mistaken, and it looks like the zone failed. This is how MSU stayed close during this run which I recall as being 47-38, or thereabouts.

    If I were to be on Crean’s staff I think I would be going more 3 – 2 with Oladipo up top harassing the PG. Or better yet, put him on the team’s best threat, and go box & 1. That could be a lethal weapon with Vic chasing the best they have, whomever that is. Vic is the reason I think we beat OSU twice this year. He can dominate their backcourt in my opinion, or put the heat on Thomas. When he is shutdown, OSU is D – O – N – E.

    Let’s thrash the a-holes up north in the Hoosier waste zone tonight. I want to be up 30 when they break into their “IU Sucks” cheer.

  6. AZ, I personally can’t wait to hear them bust out the “O-ver-Ra-Ted” chant when they’re up 10-4 early. You know, right before we go on a 15-2 run and start to blow them out…

  7. I have no problem with the zone but they sure leave a lot of guys wide open in it. I am more concerned with why they refuse to use PJ in the middle of it at least a couple times a game.

    If PJ cannot play in the regular season then he cannot play in the conference tourney. If he cannot play in the conf tourney, he cannot play in the big dance. Seems like they could get him a couple minutes.

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