Louisville’s bread and butter defensively is a 2-3 zone, but it is one of the more unique 2-3 zones in the country.
When dealing with a typical 2-3 zone, each defender is worried about defending their area. The guards at the top have the responsibility of preventing penetration by the point guard while making the pass to the high post as difficult as possible. If the ball is thrown to the wing, the bottom defender on that side is tasked with stepping out to prevent an open look until the guard at the top of the zone is able to get over and push him back to the baseline. When a player has the ball in the corner, it is the responsibility of the bottom defender in the zone to matchup with him while the center’s responsibility is to protect the paint and the rim.
Louisville is different. They run a matchup zone, which can almost be better described as a man-to-man defense in which they switch everything. This possession from the second half of the Michigan State game should give you a good feel for what Louisville wants to do. Ideally, their defense starts in the full court, especially off of made baskets and dead balls, where they will matchup man-to-man:
The goal of the press isn’t necessarily to force turnovers — although, with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith defending in the full court, that often is the by-product — as much as it is designed to take time off the shot clock and make it difficult to get into your offense. Here, you’ll see that they have already taken nine seconds off of the shot clock as Michigan State is just starting to get into their offensive set. It looks more like a man-to-man defense than it does a zone, as the three perimeter players are all match up man-to-man with Chane Behanan helping off of Brandon Wood to prevent the pass into the post:
As the ball is swung around the perimeter, you’ll see Kyle Kuric matched up with Austin Thornton of the far side, while Russ Smith is guarding Keith Appling and the back line is matched up with the player in their area:
Wood comes off of a double-screen to the opposite corner, where Chris Smith slides over to pick him up. Dieng matches up with Green, who seals on the block, while Behanan slides over to defend Derrick Nix:
Russ Smith doubles down on Green in the post, while the rest of the Cardinals are more-or-less matching up with the players in their area:
Green kicks the ball back out to Appling, who misses a wide-open look at a three:
That is what you are going to get a lot of against Louisville. There are times where it almost seems like the Cardinals are daring their opponents to shoot, and that is what got Louisville in trouble against Florida. The Gators simply had too many good shooters, and they didn’t miss their open looks.
Dieng’s ability to block shots is key to the way this zone is played. His length makes it very difficult for anyone to score over him in a post-up situation, and he changes a lot of shots when penetrators try to finish over him. That shot-blocking ability was the difference against Florida. When Louisville went man down the stretch against the Gators, they structured their defense so that Behanan would cover whichever big man floated out to the perimeter while Dieng stayed at home to protect the rim.
I expect Louisville to play quite a bit of that 2-3 zone once again in their rematch with Kentucky, but what makes the Cardinals so good defensively is that they can confuse an offense with their ability to run different defensive looks.
But all of those defenses are predicated on two things: the ability of their perimeter defenders to cut off penetration and Dieng’s presence around the rim.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.