From last night, I watched most of the Michigan game against a feisty Northeastern team at the Coaches for Cancer pre-season tournament. With a lot of pundits saying the Big10 will be in a slump this year, Michigan is poised to be one of the teams that could break through and get to the NCAA tournament.

In Coach John Beilein's second full season with the Wolverines, I think a lot of people have higher expectations. We know they run the 1-3-1 zone defense, and I profiled it last season when they played UCLA tough. What I noticed in this game against Northeastern wasn't necessarily how well it worked (and it did) but how Northeastern was playing right into the traps, by dribbling into the problem areas. The ESPN announcer (not sure who) kept saying Northeastern needs to penetrate the gap, the only problem is, that only works if you have a penetrating guard. Take a look,

Penetrating the Gap:

Penetrating the gaps in a zone is one way to beat it. But as you can see, Northeastern's guards do not have the foot speed to be able to do that effectively. Michigan can close up and trap the penetrating guard easily to force the turnover,

Gapping the zone:

In my opinion, if you can't penetrate the gaps in the zone, then you need to position players in the gaps. Against the 1-3-1, I think the best way to do that is with a double high post like the 1-4 high. When the ball goes into one of the high posts, the other post can dive and you can either shoot, drive or go hi-lo, the other option is the 3-pointer in the corners,

Or you can go with an overload. Say you setup in a 1-3-1 roughly with your shooter in the middle. Your 2 posts setup a stack screen down on the low block. O3 cuts around the stack to the corner. O1 takes 1 or 2 dribbles to draw the defenders in then passes to the corner for the open 3-pointer,

X4 will probably chase O3. Regardless if O3 is open or not, O5 and O4 split. O5 heads to high post, O4 cuts to the basket. One of them should be open. The pass can come from O1 or O3 if that first pass is made,

Finally, when the ball goes to the high post, O5 can shoot, drive, or pass to O4 on the high low, O2 who has shuffled to the opposite corner, O3 still in the corner, or back out to O1 and reset,


Remember, there are always more than one way to skin a cat. Penetrating the gaps is a good zone offense principle, but your guards have to be faster then the defense can close in. If not, you'll need to use another strategy. The good thing about gapping, is that it will work regardless of your personnel.

Northeastern actually did OK, keeping the first half score within 10. One thing to keep in mind against zone teams like Michigan who play zone mostly only after dead ball is, if you play good defense and get stops, that means you'll play Michigan M2M (Beilein feels it is difficult to transition into their 1-3-1 on live ball). Michigan's M2M defense is not nearly as good as their zone, that is usually the case for zone teams in general. That is how Northeastern kept the game close, by getting stops on defense, and scoring on Michigan's M2M.

For more specifics to counteract the 1-3-1 zone defense, check out Darrin Horn's DVD on Zone Offense Quick Hitters. Coach Horn is the new head coach at South Carolina and formerly of Western Kentucky. Don't forget to check out the X's and O's Basketball Forum to talk hoops with other coaches.