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The Panthers Zone Offense & Where It Needs To Go

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that if the Pittsburgh Panthers (12-7, 2-4) hope to pick up a few more ACC wins this season, they’ll likely need to be more proficient against zone defenses, specifically the 2-3 zone. Pitt has seen a few other zone variants for a possession here or there, but there have been times that it seems like a team is in a 1-3-1 or even a matchup zone based on how the Panthers are positioned on the court.

Teams have played zone against Pitt throughout the season, it’s not something new to them. Every conference opponent has played zone at some point against them, but since the Panthers win over the Florida State Seminoles, teams have gone to it for longer stretches than their prior opponents (the Syracuse Orange obviously played it the entire game).

First, let’s clarify why teams are playing zone against Pitt. They do it to prevent dribble penetration and avoid sending the freshman guard duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to the free throw line. McGowens is leading the ACC in free throw makes and attempts, while Johnson is currently 2nd in free throws made and tied for 3rd in attempts. The fact that the Panthers are shooting just 30.2% on three-pointers against conference opponents contributes to their struggles, but it’s not the primary reason why teams go zone against them.

This is a good example from the game against Syracuse of how the zone can shut down dribble penetration. Johnson and McGowens have the ability to blow past almost anybody, but it’s harder to do that between two defenders with an anchor in the middle watching the whole play develop in front of them.

In regards to how Pitt has tried attacking the zone, they’ve mostly positioned a player in the high post in hopes of collapsing the defense and getting the ball to the open man. It’s been hit or miss as the Panthers don’t have a clear “best” player to position in the high post, and the off-ball movement hasn’t been consistent. Junior guard Malik Ellison has probably logged the most minutes there, but freshman guard Au’Diese Toney has seen his fair share and senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame has spent time in the high post as well.

The amount of movement that occurs on this play is really good against a zone. There are a lot of bodies moving in and out a defender’s area and that forces them to think. I like how sophomore forward Terrell Brown initially rolls through the high post and then Ellison enters that space after coming from the corner and across the baseline.

When Ellison receives the pass and turns towards to the basket, he has two options: Brown in the short corner (more on this later), and Johnson rotating to the strong side corner. Both were in his vision as he turned towards to hoop. He opted to kick the ball out to Johnson, who then splashed the corner triple.

Pitt tried running a similar set later in the half. However, there isn’t nearly as much off-ball movement and two key players don’t rotate to a position where they can take quality shots once Ellison receives the pass and collapses the defense: Brown and Wilson-Frame.

Brown isn’t in the short corner on the strong side (doesn’t always have to be the strong side) like the first clip. He’s basically standing right behind senior center Paschal Chukwu. Wilson-Frame didn’t rotate to the weak side corner as the pass entered the high post. Given the position of the closest defender, Ellison likely had to turn back into the paint, he probably didn’t realize Johnson was wide-open in the strong side corner as his back was to him. The Panthers haven’t been great against the zone, and inconsistency in execution is one reason why.

Here’s a clip against the Duke Blue Devils where Pitt executes. Brown finds himself in the short corner on the strong side as Toney catches the entry pass in the high post and the result is an easy two points (Brown actually went up strong). Positioning and off-ball movement are so important against the zone. The layup was ideal, but Toney also had an option to kick the ball out to Johnson for a three-point attempt as he rotated to the wing on the weak side as Wilson-Frame rolled through the lane, helping to clear an obvious passing lane.

To the Panthers credit, they have tried a lot of different looks against the zone. I like this set against the zone as both Johnson and McGowens are high up on the wing forcing the backline corners up. One noticeable wrinkle Pitt added for this game is having the player in the high post sealing off a backline corner defender. Entry passes were far less contested and it positioned the player in the high post to have a clear view of the entire weak side of the floor after receiving the entry pass.

Here’s that inconsistency again: The issue here is junior forward Kene Chukwuka completely bails out of the short corner and starts heading for the three-point line. That forces Toney to take a contested layup in traffic, but does draw the foul. Given that the other three Panthers were at either wing or at the top of the circle, Chukwuka was the only pass available; he can’t vacate that area.

Junior center Marques Bolden plays the ball as he clearly sees his four other teammates are behind the ball after Toney turns towards the basket. This would have been an easy dunk for Chukwuka.

I threw this one in here because Pitt has tried a few different things to create dribble penetration opportunities. The double screen on the top two players of the zone that is initiated from behind the defenders is a nice little wrinkle. McGowens doesn’t convert the layup, and misses a wide-open Johnson in the corner, but I expect the Panthers to keep adding things like this going forward to try and attack the zone.

If you’re a Pitt fan, the good news is that they’re finding more ways to attack the zone. They just haven’t been very consistent for stretches that span multiple possessions. With a little more practice and inevitable experience in games, I’d be surprised if they weren’t a pretty decent team against the zone sooner rather than later.

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