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Ohio State's struggles versus Minnesota's zone defense, and how they can defeat it

Ohio State faces Minnesota on Saturday. They'll need a much stronger performance against the Gophers' zone than they got last time in order to come out victorious.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It's pretty fair to say that Ohio State's offense has struggled recently, especially against the zone defense. This was most evident against Minnesota when they played at The Barn on January 16th. With the Gophers coming into Columbus on Saturday, I figured today was as good a time as any to take a look at their zone offense and how it failed against the Gophers.

I went through and tracked the offensive possessions in that game. We can throw out the 17 transition/non-defensively recovered offensive possessions (we'll come back to these at the end, but they aren't important to the body of this discussion). Of the 46 half-court offensive possessions that Ohio State had before the final minute (where Ohio State was fouling and getting some easy looks from three), 38 of them were against Minnesota's 2-3* zone and 8 were against man-to-man defense. The stats are pretty atrocious. Ohio State's average points-per-possession in Big Ten play is 1.03. Against Minnesota's zone, they scored 26 points in 38 possessions -- for a points-per-possession of 0.68 -- and .84 points overall per possession for the full game.

*It's not really as simple as calling it a 2-3. They do some interesting stuff where the back line corner defenders will shoot up towards the wing for pressure and traps. But ultimately, its basis and set up is the 2-3.

But for the first 25 minutes, it wasn't that bad. In Ohio State's first 27 possessions against Minnesota's zone they scored 25 points while only turning the ball over 4 times. But then over the next 10 defensive possessions against Minnesota's half-court zone -- which took up about 12 minutes -- they went scoreless with three turnovers. Not "they didn't make a field goal for 12 minutes in half court." They went scoreless in the half court, and only scored eight points total during that time in transition. Minnesota's 21-8 run during this time clinched the game for their favor, and continued Ohio State's tailspin towards the middle of the Big Ten.

So what happened against the zone that gave Ohio State fits? First, let's take a look at what Ohio State did well early -- and can potentially take away as a positive way to attack the Gopher zone Saturday -- then we'll check out the last 14 minutes and see how Minnesota stymied the Buckeyes.

Here's a play from the end of the first half. The Buckeyes get excellent ball movement here through the entire top of the zone, and then get paid off with an alley-oop to Sam Thompson.


This is probably the best play that Ohio State has run against a zone defense this season. First and foremost, getting the ball to the middle leads to good things because the top of the zone will collapse down towards the foul line and the man in the middle at the rim, this time Elliott Eliason, will slide up to pressure the ball handler. Here, Marc Loving flashes up to the foul line, gets the ball, and immediately passes the ball to Lenzelle Smith on the wing. That's not the important part of the play though, and we'll get to why the middle is so dangerous in a zone with the next play. Smith looks towards the corner to see if the back left corner defender is going to flash up to him. Once he sees that he's not going to, Smith immediately gives it back to Shannon Scott, then crosses to the opposite corner. That's where the off-ball fun starts.

Loving and Amir Williams switch. The switch brings Eliason towards the center of the paint as Williams starts to fake flash for the ball in the post. Eliason has to respect Williams there because he's still only about ten feet from the hoop in the middle of the paint. Loving then goes to the opposite corner of where the ball is, which is where Thompson sits in the corner. Thompson's job here is simply to space the zone out. Either he'll sit in the corner, where his shot has to be respected, or he makes runs behind the back line of the zone in order to push them back towards the rim, therefore opening up the middle of the paint for the guy at the foul line. By screening the back left corner man, Loving gives Thompson a free lane to the rim. That's an easy pass for Scott to make, and it leads to two points.

Obviously though, you're not going to be able to run alley-oops every play. Here's the very next play, where Minnesota's back line clearly remembers what happened, and sells out to respect the man running behind them, and stays near the hoop.


This time, Scott brings the ball up, and makes the quick bounce pass to Smith as LaQuinton Ross moves from the wing to the foul line. Smith bumbles and fumbles with the ball for a second, allowing the defender to recover, but he passes it over the 5'9 Deandre Mathieu to get it to Ross in the middle. This time, the man in the middle, still Eliason, has a decision to make. Either he can flash towards Ross to contest him and leave Williams open right at the rim, or he can stay there and let Ross possibly take a dribble forward or just shoot the 15 footer. Ross decides to take the wide open 15 footer and knocks it down. Ross was the only truly successful player against the Minnesota zone, going for 22 points. As their best shooter both from the midrange and from the wing -- outside of Amedeo Della Valle -- he'll be the most important piece for Ohio State against the zone so that it doesn't go to pieces like it in the second half of the first Minnesota game.

So what exactly did happen there? Let's take a look at an example from the second half.


This is a pretty indicative play of what happened to the Buckeyes during their prolonged drought. After they missed a few early shots, they started to get stagnant and panicked. This is about a 13 second gif, and during that entire time the only off ball movement was an early switch between Scott and Thompson. During the two plays above, the clear common denominator was movement. Ross flashing the high post, Thompson off ball, Loving and Williams switching, etc. By stain still, you play directly into the zone's hands. It forces an attack into the teeth of the defense by the Ohio State guards, which is going to be a tough finish. Both Scott and Aaron Craft have finished at the rim at an above average rate this season, but it's hard to argue that either of them going up against Eliason at the rim is going to end well.


Now, let's bring it full circle. While the zone offense was pretty clearly the major problem, it wasn't the only one. On their transition/non-recovered possessions, Ohio State only scored 15 points in 17 possessions with five turnovers. Turning the ball over on nearly 30% of your transition possessions is going to be a major issue no matter who you're facing. That's basically throwing away what should be easy points. I also counted five missed dunks or "gimme" lay-ups by the Buckeyes during the game, which is enough to tie the game itself. Plus, they only went 11-18 (61.1%) from the free throw line, which is also maddening enough to make someone get drunk and throw a television off of their balcony. Clearly, they not only suffered from bad offense but also simply from bad luck.

But going 12 minutes without scoring in your half-court offense in the second half of a game is clearly indicative of the game's biggest problems. Simply put, the Buckeyes need to move without the ball better. Get Ross in the middle, Williams at the hoop behind the defense, and Thompson in the corner. Keep the floor spaced well, and continue to move. Getting behind the back line of Minnesota's defense is essential, as it either keeps the back line at the rim, or it gives the man behind the zone an easy look at the rim if they push forward. Plus, the farther back the line is pushed towards the hoop, the harder it is for them to push out to open spot up shooters. Getting the ball in the middle is also key, as it collapses the defense towards him which opens up wing spot up shooters.

For a team lacking in top-50 wins, Ohio State beating Minnesota would help slightly validate the Buckeyes as a legitimate threat in the Big Ten tournament, even though Minnesota comes in having lost five of seven games. They just need to find a way to defeat the zone to do so.