CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s pretty rare to stifle Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. But the Michigan men’s basketball team almost stifled the coach and his top-seeded team into a loss with the help of its 1-3-1 zone on Sunday.
It’s a defensive set that’s proved difficult for several teams Michigan has faced this season, and it did exactly the same thing when Michigan coach John Beilein employed it in the Wolverines’ third-round game of the NCAA Tournament.
“It kind of throws them off, especially since we haven’t been playing it that much,” sophomore point guard Darius Morris said Sunday. “It’s just a change of pace. You know, we slow it up and make the guard really have to make decisions on the fly … It switches up the game and changes up the pace.”
That change of pace forces guards to spread out more, which in turn affects the way even talented guards make simple moves. Krzyzewski explained Saturday that any zone slows the pace of the game and forces teams to take outside shots.
But his fear with the 1-3-1 zone was that his players would stand up too straight. And when players stand up, passes often are made entirely with their arm rather than their entire body. In effect, standing taller forces players to make weaker passes.
“In man-to-man, if you’re pressured you get strong,” Krzyzewski said Saturday. “In a zone, sometimes that space — and then people in front of you in that space — makes you think and stand up, and that’s the very first thing in playing against a slouching man or against a zone is to make sure you stay strong in your stance with the ball.”
The defensive pressure did just that and held Duke’s guard contingent, which normally moves the ball with military-like precision, to just seven assists. In comparison, the Wolverines’ guards, who faced the Blue Devils’ man-to-man defense most of the game, dished out 12 assists.
Krzyzewski was impressed with freshman Kyrie Irving’s penetration into Michigan’s zone. He was able to attack the defense and kick the ball out, but Duke’s outside shooting was affected by the zone — it only shot 5-for-20 from long range.
In addition to forcing the Blue Devils into low-percentage shots, the Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone defense forced the Blue Devils into 11 turnovers.
Duke didn’t have as much time to prepare for the 1-3-1 zone as it would have liked because of the quick turnaround in the second and third-rounds of the tournament. But one thing the Blue Devils did know how to do against a zone was rebound.
With a zone, when players aren’t matched up one-on-one, sometimes people can’t find a body to box out, and opposing players are able to crash the boards with more ease. This was exactly the case on Sunday, as the Blue Devils dominated the Wolverines on the boards, 33-22.
However, with Duke’s inherent size advantage, it’s quite likely Michigan would have been out-rebounded by that kind of margin if it had played a man-to-man defense as well.
“It was very effective,” junior guard Stu Douglass said Sunday. “When we threw it out there it kind of made them stumble a little bit on the offensive end. They were getting some good looks … When we went into it, it was very effective.”
Michigan employed the 1-3-1 zone more in the second half and outscored Duke by two points in that stanza. However, the foul troubles of freshman Evan Smotrycz and redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan forced Beilein to move players into different positions in the zone, but he was pleased with the overall performance of his team.
“It’s a unique defense that we used when I was at Richmond … and at West Virginia,” Beilein said. “We practice it often, we use it rarely. But when we do use it and it’s effective, we’ll stay with it.”