The 2-3 zone has long been the bane of Kansas State basketball. When the opposing team wanted to put the offense on ice, they would break out the 2-3 and it was all over.
There are a few basic ways to attack the 2-3 zone, and the Wildcats weren’t proficient at any of them.
Shoot Them Out of the 2-3
The first, and most basic way to attack the 2-3 is to simply shoot teams out of it. You surround the court with shooters, move the the ball around the perimeter until it lands in the hands of a guy with an open look, and fire away.
I cover Purdue basketball, and you rarely see a team play zone against Purdue because they have at least three knock down 3-point shooters on the floor at all times, and if a team goes zone, they can put five shooters on the court. Even teams that normally play zone like Iowa play mostly man against Purdue because giving up easy 3-point looks against Purdue is death.
As we all know, this Wildcat team doesn’t have that personnel.
Dean Wade is a knock down shooter at 40%, but he’s also a reluctant shooter at 2.1 attempts a game.
Barry Brown is a marginal 3-point shooter. He can do it, but at 32%, it’s not something you want him doing all the time. He’s much better at the mid range pull up.
Kamau Stokes is decent at 36%, but again, he’s not really a zone buster. Same goes with Xavier Sneed, he can do it, but he’s better at doing other things on offense.
Kenpom has K-State as the 217th best 3-point shooting team in the nation. If you can sit back in the 2-3 and let them fire away from deep, you don’t have to even be particularly good at playing the 2-3 zone to stop the Wildcats from scoring for large swaths of the game.
I’ve watched the Wildcats try and shoot teams out of the zone, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it drove me to this hot take a little while ago.
If you don't play a zone against K-State for 40 minutes you should be fired. Even if you've never practiced playing zone defense, you still have to play zone defense against K-State.— Drewithahardewwww (@LegendofSM) February 6, 2019
Execute Them Out of the 2-3
I 100% stand behind the above take if Kansas State is trying to shoot over a zone, but that’s not the case anymore.
They’ve moved on to the second way to beat a 2-3, and it’s working beautifully. They are getting players to the void at the free throw line and killing teams with mid range jumpers and post dump downs.
This is a throw back to olden days when analytics weren’t everything and the mid range jump shot was something to be celebrated, not scorned.
Let’s take a look at the basic 2-3 set up.
In this still, the ball is at the wing, but you can see the basic idea. You have two banks of defenders working in unison.
The top bank of two players (red) rotates around the perimeter looking to harass ball handlers and prevent penetration.
The back bank of three players (blue) shifts from side to side, looking to trap the wings and step up and stop any penetration.
2-3 Zone Weakness
One major point of weakness in the 2-3 zone is the foul line area between the two banks of defenders.
In the olden days, this was where teams would look to attack the zone. Say what you want about Bruce Weber, but the man has experience, and what’s old is new again for the Wildcat offense.
Here is a full offensive set against the Texas zone.
Notice, Dean Wade and Xavier Sneed both moving across the free throw line void in this set. Wade jumps in the void initially, but Sneed is the player you need to keep an eye on. He cuts across the void twice. Whenever he’s on the weak side, he looks to cut across as soon as the ball goes to the wing.
This is beautiful execution as the ball moves from side to side and Sneed nails the mid range jumper late in the clock. You need ball movement and player movement to beat the zone, and you see both in action in this set.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
This is the same set, but it doesn’t work because of a simple mistake by Kamau Stokes.
As someone who watches basketball closely, this is where the “Bruce doesn’t have a zone offense” statements don’t mesh with what is happening on the court.
This was textbook player and man movement to beat the zone, Stokes just dropped the ball. Bruce can put them in the right set, but he can’t catch the pass. This was solid coaching, but it was ruined by a physical miscue by a player.
This belongs in an instructional video
Once again, the set starts with Wade threatening the free throw area of the zone. Texas is now trying to jump that pass with the weak side wing. K-State moves the ball back to the top of the key, Wade vacates the free throw line, and Xavier Sneed cuts from the weak side box to the free throw line.
The Texas center has seen too many of these mid range jumpers fall (Barry Brown hit one over him two possessions ago). He steps up to defend the jumper, the weak side wing defender is worried about Wade, and subsequently, Makol Mawien is wide open along the baseline for the dunk.
I want everyone to stop for a moment an appreciate the bounce pass by Sneed. You won’t see a more text book bounce pass delivered all season.
The Mawien dunk ended the 2-3 zone for Texas. They were back in man the rest of the game.
As I mentioned above, the easy way to get a team out of a 2-3 zone is to shoot them out of it. Kansas State has given up on that approach and is now executing people out of it with a throw back, free throw line zone attack. It’s not as easy as spacing the floor with shooters, but in the Texas game, it was deadly effective.
The next time someone tells you Bruce doesn’t know how to coach against a zone, please refer him/her to this post, and remember, just because it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean the idea wasn’t sound.