In the Zone

What can the Rebels do to defeat zone defenses?

After watching the UNLV offense struggle during various stretches over the past two games (wins over Hawaii and, most recently, Portland), it’s obvious that opponents are becoming more willing to throw a certain wrinkle at the Rebels: zone defense.

The Rebels are seeing more and more zone, mostly the 2-3 alignment, and there’s been much hand-wringing over whether or not UNLV is capable of countering. Zone defenses discourage penetration and try to force outside shots, and the Rebels aren’t a great shooting squad (31.3 percent from 3-point range as a team). And the Hawaii and Portland games were the Rebels’ two lowest-scoring games of the season.

So naturally, the increase in zone defenses must be the reason for UNLV’s recent offensive drop-off, right?

That would be the easy answer. But statistics tell a different story.

It’s true that UNLV is seeing more zone. Through the first five games of the season, their opponents played 27.7 percent of halfcourt possessions in zone alignments, and that figure is trending upward — in the Hawaii and Portland games, it rose to 35.7 percent.

But it’s not that simple. Zone defense isn’t the reason UNLV struggled to score in the second half against Hawaii or in the first half against Portland.

That may have been the case during the first five games of the season, when UNLV shot just 27.7 percent against zone (compared to 44.1 percent against man defenses). But against Hawaii and Portland, the Rebels’ splits were reversed — they shot just 35.8 percent against man and hit at a healthy 44.7 percent against zones.

So what does it mean? It means that yes, UNLV is seeing more zone defense as the season goes on, but that they’re also getting better at attacking it and breaking it down. Dave Rice spends a portion of almost every practice pitting his first team against zone defenses, and the extra attention seems to be working.

Now that opponents seem committed to making zone defense a big part of their blueprint, what can the Rebels do to continue having success against it? Here are three suggestions, based on my observations:

1. Move the ball and trust the open man
Shooting 3-pointers against a zone isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long you make the defense work a little (and hit your shots). The Rebels sometimes settle for the first available three, and that’s no way to break a zone. Rice wants his players to make multiple passes and create an open shot before letting it fly. Justin Hawkins‘ brilliant barrage of 3-pointers in Portland came primarly against a 2-3 zone, and he thinks UNLV is doing a good job of preparing for it. “We’re just coming up with different ways to attack the zone,” Hawkins said. “Whether it’s by passing or dribble pentration or coming up with different offensive sets that the coaches put in, we know that every single day when we practice against it that we’ll get better.”

2. Work the ball inside
No matter what type of defense an opponent is playing, Anthony Bennett has to be accounted for. Against Portland, the Rebels attacked the zone by moving Bennett away from the basket (it helped that Quintrell Thomas was playing the 5, allowing Bennett to play power forward). He was often stationed in the high post, and whenever he caught a pass it forced the Portland D to collapse on Bennett (or get dunked on). And once a zone collapses, it’s vulnerable to inside-out passing, cuts to the basket and dribble penetration.

3. Hit the offensive glass
One of the weaknesses of zone D is that it makes it difficult to box out offensive players. Thomas took advantage of it against Portland by pulling down six offensive rebounds, but the rest of the Rebels could stand to do a better job of exploiting that weakness. Nothing gets a coach to pull the plug on his zone D faster than a few easy putbacks. Mike Moser is one player who could benefit on the offensive glass, once he returns from injury.

The stats say that despite some early-season difficulties, the Rebels are getting better against the zone. Overall, they’ve shot 34.9 percent against zone (0.855 points per possession) and 44.1 percent against man (0.906 points per possession). So they haven’t completely mastered it yet, but don’t bet against them.

“We’re working on it every practice,” said Bennett. “We can get better at some areas, but right now I feel we’re in a good spot.”

Follow Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates.

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