Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com contributed to this post.
Just eight short days ago, the course of the season for the Syracuse Orange completely changed.
For the second time in the span of two months, Fab Melo, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year and the rock that had anchored the Syracuse zone, was ruled ineligible due to the same academic issue. Without him, the thinking went, Syracuse not only didn’t have a chance of winning the national title, but their hopes of making a deep run into the NCAA tournament were severely hurt.
It would be difficult to understate just what Melo meant to the Syracuse zone. Luke Winn of SI.com did an exhaustive study of the Syracuse defense, and what he determined was that Melo was “simultaneously the Orange’s most obvious defensive force (by blocking shots) and its secret weapon (by taking charges and creating turnovers).”
I wrote this back when Melo was ruled ineligible*:
That’s really all you need to know about Melo’s presence in the paint. He not only blocks 2.9 shots per game, he forces opponents that he’s engaged with to shoot just 29.1% from the field without fouling (his defensive free throw rate is 37.7%). That doesn’t even mention the fact that he gathers steals and takes charges as well as any big man in the country. Melo is not a good rebounder outside of his area, which is a major problem for a team that struggles on the defensive glass, but his ability to end possessions via the turnover and the number of missed shots he forces make up for it.
(The stats came from Winn’s study linked above.)
But Melo’s absence didn’t stop No. 1 seed Syracuse from advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over No. 16 UNC-Asheville (with an assist from the refs) and No. 8 Kansas State (with a hat-tip to the NCAA).
Syracuse gets No. 4 Wisconsin on Thursday night. On paper, the Badgers look like an ideal team to go up against a zone and exploit the absence of Melo. They have a playmaking point guard in Jordan Taylor, they have shooters all over their perimeter and they have skilled big men that can knock down that foul line jumper and pass from the high-post.
So would you be surprised if I were to tell you that Wisconsin actually struggles against a zone?
Kenpom.com rates Wisconsin as the 20th-most efficient team in the country on the offensive end of the floor. On the season, they are averaging 1.082 points-per-possession (PPP). Against a zone, however, that number falls to 0.960 PPP, which is a significant difference. Wisconsin averages 58.8 possessions per game, meaning that in an average game where the Badgers face a zone the entire 40 minutes, they lose 7.1 ppg.
Those struggles were evident against Vanderbilt in the round of 32. The Badgers had opened up a nine point lead with 6:07 left on the clock when Kevin Stallings threw on a 2-3 zone that completely flummoxed Bo Ryan’s team. Wisconsin would manage just seven points the rest of the game, but their struggles went deeper than that.
Wisconsin essentially had eight full shot clocks in the final six minutes. (Technically, they had six possessions, but they were able to grab a couple of offensive rebounds.) They managed eight shots from the floor, every single one of them a three-pointer. In fact, there were only two times in the final 6:07 where Wisconsin actually got the ball inside the three-point line without grabbing an offensive rebound, and they came on the same possession. Jordan Taylor passed the ball to Jared Berggren at the high-post, and after Berggren (almost immediately) kicked the ball back out, Taylor drove right and got about a foot inside the three-point line before pulling the ball out.
Wisconsin was saved because Ben Brust hit a 26 foot three (he tried three of them) and Taylor hit a tough, contested three off the dribble.
This is what Wisconsin’s offense looked like down the stretch. Jordan Taylor doesn’t even look to initiate an offensive set until there are 25 seconds left on the shot clock:
The first time he gets rid of the ball is with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Wisconsin still hasn’t gotten the ball with 25 feet of the rim:
To their credit, Wisconsin moves the ball around the perimeter quickly, but an offense is easy to defend in the zone when that happens:
The first time Wisconsin is within 25 feet, it is with six seconds left on the shot clock and Ryan Evans is firing a three:
This isn’t the only time that Wisconsin struggled with a zone. Iowa played a lot of zone in their two wins over the Badgers — in the second game, the Hawkeyes made their game-changing run in the second half while in a 2-3 zone — as did Michigan in their 18 point win in January.
The issue is that Wisconsin’s offense is predicated around milking the clock and, if no good shots arise out of Ryan’s Swing Offense, the Badgers either isolate Taylor or give him a ball-screen. When that happens against a zone, however, far too often Taylor is forced to try and create against two defenders.
You have to beat the zone with the pass and by attacking gaps off the dribble. Unless Wisconsin has figured that ou, the absence of Melo around the rim will not decide the outcome of this game.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.