It's only late November, but it feels like Christmas morning and Monty is Santa Claus. I've gotten everything on my wish list I posted in the offseason. Fast breaks – check. Dribble penetration – check. Perimeter screens – check. 1-1-3 trapping zone defense??? Ah, the surprise gifts are the best of all, aren't they? Since some fans haven't had a chance to see the Card in person or on TV (some locales are still deprived of ESPN2), I'll start off this week's analysis with a look at the 1-1-3 zone.
1-1-3 Zone Defense
When Monty first shouted out the defensive call "1-3" during a scrimmage a month ago, I said (out loud I think): "You've gotta be sh----g me." Seeing Chris Hernandez and Julius Barnes trap and cause turnovers was a sight for sore eyes. When the offense passed the ball to the wings, the length of Josh Childress and Justin Davis on defense caused all kinds of problems. Rob Little and Joe Kirchofer ate up space in the middle. It seemed to make a lot of sense, but the obvious question to observers was whether it would work not just against Stanford's second team, but against the starting five of an opponent like Xavier. Stanford answered that question with a resounding "YES" against the Musketeers.
For those who haven't seen it in action, here's the basic idea of the 1-1-3 utilized by Stanford. The 1 (Barnes) is at the top of the defense and picks up the point guard. If the offense starts off in something like a "1-4" set (where the point guard is outside and the four other offensive players start off inside, as with UCLA's offense under Steve Lavin), the 2 (Matt Lottich) starts off behind Barnes, near the foul line. Behind Lottich are the 3 (Childress), 5 (Little) and 4 (Davis). Typically, the first cut by the offense involves the off-guard or small forward flaring out to a wing. At that point, Lottich will leave his initial position behind Barnes and jump out to defend the wing. For the moment, the 1-1-3 briefly looks just like a traditional 2-3 zone, which Stanford has employed sparingly in the past (most commonly against good slashing teams with a dearth of outside shooting). Stanford's 1-1-3 often pressures the ball by utilizing traps out on the wings and in the corners. By doing so, Stanford can limit the open looks of certain shooters and force the ball away from the offense's most dangerous player(s). Stanford also looks to generate steals and the fast break opportunities that result from those steals.
In contrast with Stanford's traditional 2-3 zone, the 1-1-3 is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. It generates more steals and turnovers, but it also is susceptible to giving up the easy bucket when the offense can effectively dribble-penetrate and/or swing the ball effectively to the weak side where there's often a player left unguarded as a result of a trap. So far, Stanford has done a remarkable job of recovering when the offensive player passes out of the double. Childress' and Davis' length and quickness on the wings have been a tremendous help in that regard, and the quickness and hustle of Barnes and Lottich up top have also been key. So far, none of Stanford's opponents has been able to consistently and effectively attack the 1-1-3. However, Florida will present a stern challenge for the 1-1-3 because the Gators have the slashers and the shooters necessary to exploit the weaknesses of the 1-1-3. If Stanford can limit the open looks available to Matt Walsh and Matt Bonner, who will present serious matchup problems for Stanford (and almost every other team in the country), it will bode extremely well for the Card's chances of defensive success in the Pac-10.
In contrast with the 1-1-3, Stanford's 2-3 zone does not double/trap. It's a relatively passive defense that forces the offense to be patient in order to be successful. Of course, the 2-3 zone is used for a much different purpose than is the 1-1-3. The 2-3 zone is vulnerable to good outside shooting, if the offense is patient and intelligent enough to attack it properly. One approach against the 2-3 zone is simply to have three perimeter shooters match up against the two defensive players at the top of the zone and work the ball around to get an open shot. The best example of this approach I've ever seen was the Stanford team of 2000-01. All the Card had to do was station Casey Jacobsen at one wing spot and Ryan Mendez at the other, let Mike McDonald dribble the ball to the top of the arc, draw the defender, then kick the ball to whichever shooter was left open (or he could take the shot himself if left alone). If the defense put a third defender out on the wing to take away the open jumper, that left the Collins twins in one-on-one situations down low without effective help – game over. The other conventional approach to attacking the 2-3 zone involves getting the ball to a post player near the foul line, waiting for the defense to collapse, then kicking the ball out to an open shooter (or a cutter to the hoop if the outside shot is taken away). Attacking the 2-3 zone is more straightforward from a strategic standpoint than is attacking the 1-1-3, even if it isn't always easy to execute that strategy.
The sample size is obviously small thus far, but if I'm not mistaken, we're running more perimeter screens, particularly for Julius Barnes. I like how it's freeing him up for open looks from deep (which of course could be a mixed blessing) and allowing him the occasional opportunity to penetrate without having to just beat his defender one on one. I've also noticed more screening out on the wings. I think this plays to the strengths of this year's squad.
A lot of the pregame attention seems to be on Matt Bonner, who certainly presents a challenge with his versatility. But I think a combination of Justin Davis, Josh Childress and Nick Robinson can keep him from beating Stanford. The guys I'm most concerned about are Matt Walsh and Brett Nelson. If Nelson can't go, it'll be a huge plus for Stanford. He's the kind of quick shooter who can get free from Matt Lottich and get open looks. Walsh looks to be a similar kind of player, and is off to a ridiculously good start at 23 ppg. How the freshman responds to the atmosphere (and poor sight lines) of the Garden will be extremely important for the Gators.