Tom Izzo, 30 second shot clocks, and why zone presses will be more popular this year

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source: Getty Images
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One of the biggest wins for the sport of college basketball this offseason was the reduction of the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds, but there are many that believe that the change could end up hurting the sport.

Less time on the shot clock means more possessions that come to an end with the shot clock winding down, which in turn means more ugly, 1-on-1 isolations that result in jacked up jumpers. Losing the five-second rule only strengthens the argument of the opponents of the rule change.

Case in point: Tom Izzo. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Izzo said that he has spent a good amount of time during his team’s pre-Italy trip practices implementing a 2-2-1 zone press, which is something that is unheard of for Izzo’s teams. Izzo is a half-court, man-to-man coach, so listening to him talk about zone presses is akin to The Walking Dead becoming reality television.

But don’t be surprised if this — zone presses — become a common theme this season.

A zone press is not designed to force turnovers. There may be some trapping at half-court, depending on the coach and the opponent, but generally speaking, it’s a way to force the offensive team to use more of the shot clock before getting into their offense. Assuming it takes 10-12 seconds for an opponent to break the press, call an offensive set and initiate that set, they have less than 20 seconds left to actually run their stuff and get off a shot.

Here’s an example. Villanova runs a 1-2-2 zone press instead of a 2-2-1 press, but the intent is still the same. It takes nine seconds for N.C. State to get the ball over half court and another five seconds for point guard Cat Barber to get the ball, call an offense and begin to run it. A good 17 seconds run off the shot clock before Barber makes the first pass in N.C. State’s set.

The Wolfpack finally get a shot off with just one second left on the clock:

N.C. State scored in this example, but you should get the point. Using that token pressure drains the shot clock and, ideally, will force offenses into isolation situations where a player — usually the point guard — will have to try to make a play going 1-on-1 or using a ball-screen action.

There are good college point guards out there, but outside of a handful that play for the best teams in the country, most coaches would be thrilled if every possession ended with a player trying to beat his man 1-on-1. Think about how many late-clock scenarios end with deep, contested jump shots, and then think about the difference in the level of shot-making ability between the college and professional ranks.

Then think about how often those shots are forced up with three or four seconds left on the clock. It’s rare for a college player to have the composure to understand that, when the shot clock hits five seconds, there is still a ton of time left to get a good shot.

This season, you’re to see half-court, man-to-man traditionalists like Tom Izzo try to take advantage of that by testing out a zone press. You’re going to see teams that have this kind of defense in their arsenal use it more often, particularly early in the year, as teams are still learning each other and figuring out the new rules.

The best way to combat this offensively?

The easy answer is to emphasize execution offensively. It shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 seconds to get a good look offensively, and running crisp offense is the best way to do that. The other option is to trim the fat on offensive sets. College coaches use a lot of false motion offensively, a way to get the defense moving before getting into the action that they hope will get them a good shot.

Here’s a quick example: Watch how much movement BYU has here before the ball-screen/pin-down action that frees up Tyler Haws for a three:

Innovative offensive coaches will find themselves successful in situations where the shot clock gets rundown.