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What is zone defense and why the heck do Duke and Syracuse use it?

It isn’t used by many, but zone defense has worked so far in the 2018 tournament.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Duke and Syracuse will play a Sweet 16 game filled with zone defense. Zones are the alternative to man-to-man defense. It’s not always a fan favorite among college basketball watchers for aesthetic reasons, but it’s been an effective defensive strategy for decades.

Zone defense comes with a stigma, and that’s only amplified when attached to nationally-despised programs like Duke or Syracuse basketball. Twitter is likely to find Friday night’s clash insufferable.

Here’s what a zone defense is, and why its so hated.

So what is a zone defense?

A zone defense is exactly how it sounds. Instead of playing a typical man-to-man offense, like you see in the NBA, teams dictate different zones of the court for each of their five players to defend. In Duke and Cuse’s case, they play a 2-3 zone.

A 2-3 zone typically places two guards on either side of the free throw line. They are to defend anyone that comes into their region from the foul line out past the three-point arc. As the offense moves the ball to either side, each defender cheats a little more to the opposite side, anticipating where the next pass will land.

The “3” in 2-3 zone represents the three wings and big men who create the backline of the defense. The tallest of the three is usually placed in the middle to protect the basket from layups and dunks, and the smaller two are placed on either side of him. Just like the guards, the bigs cheat either way depending on where the offense reverses the ball.

This type of defense is meant to coerce teams to shoot semi-contested threes or dare them to attack the lane with beasts awaiting their arrival at the bottom of the zone.

Why does Duke use this zone?

Duke hit a wall mid-season, losing three games out of four to Virginia, UNC and a very bad St. John’s team that was then 0-11 in the Big East. The team’s biggest problem was defense.

The Blue Devils have two of the most talented bigs in the game, as both Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III are expected to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. Neither could handle defending against the pick-and-roll in man-to-man sets though, forcing Coach K to rethink his entire scheme to salvage a season set to spiral because of an inability to prevent opposing teams from strutting to the bucket.

So far, it’s worked. Duke went from a sub-50 defense to the No. 8 defense on KenPom.

Why has the zone worked for Duke?

Length. Length. Length.

Duke’s inexperience showed earlier in the season — it starts four freshmen — and when they can ride on the heels of their gifted intangibles, their lives become a heck of a lot easier. There’s less thought or verbal communication necessary for a zone to thrive. It’s more about precision and skill (and long arms!)

Carter stands 6’10 with a 7’3 wingspan, Bagley is 6’11 with a 7’ wingspan, and 6’10 Javin DeLaurier and 6’11 Marquese Bolden replace them on the bench. When defense becomes a game of guarding a space — not specifically a person — by spreading your abnormally long frame, things become a lot simpler.

The zone has helped hide a lot of the defensive deficiencies of Duke’s bigs.

Cuse does this too?

Yep. Head coach Jim Boeheim has made a Hall of Fame career out of running the most effective zone in college hoops. He recruits for it.

He may not have Bagley or Carter, but in 7’2 Paschal Chukwu and 6’9 Marek Dolezaj he has something close on the defensive end.

There’s a reason Michigan State shot 26 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range against them.

Do other teams use it?

A handful do. Baylor uses it, as did all of the Rick Pitino-coached Louisville teams.

Why do fans hate zone defense?

There’s a stigma that implies zone defense is for the lazy, or the incompetent. You don’t see zone defense played in pickup games around the country, and that’s probably where the connotation stems from.

For Duke, there’s another layer, and not only just because they are America’s most polarizing basketball school. The Blue Devils have one of, if not the most star-studded lineups in the nation. The notion that they need a zone to win despite five-star recruits crowding their rotation is embarrassing to some.

On a more general scale, zone defenses are also less aesthetically pleasing to watch. They typically slow the game down and entice teams to hoist shots from deep. That does’t make for the offensive-driven 40 minutes most casual fans turn the TV on to watch.

Do teams in the NBA use zone defense?

Not really. Rules like the defensive three seconds rule prohibit a zone from working. In the NBA, nobody can camp out in the paint without defending a specific player for three seconds or longer. Teams try and get away with playing an aggressive “2.9-second” help defense, but that’s not a true zone. Players have to stay attached to guarding a man in some way.

True zones wouldn’t really work in the NBA anyway. Pro teams are made up of the best of the best from around the world, who would tear through a zone easily. College three-point shooters are a heck of a lot worse than pros, which is why leaving semi-contested shots is advantageous to a college defense. NBA shooters would shoot through zones easily.

Plus, no zone could start high enough to stop Stephen Curry’s 35-foot bombs, or stop LeBron James from jump-stopping through the paint.

Is Duke’s zone better than Syracuse’s? Who’s going to the Elite Eight?

It’s close on the defensive side, but Duke’s offense is definitely better. In Feb., the team’s played, and Duke held the Orangemen to 44 points, and won by 16 points. Cuse’s defense is ranked No. 5 on KenPom, while Duke’s is No. 8., but Duke’s offense is ranked No. 3 to Cuse’s No. 139.

The talent disparity is clear, but we’ve said that a lot these last two weeks.

Duke is the favorite, but in March, nothing makes sense.