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Data dive: Zoning in on Duke men's basketball ahead of its Elite Eight matchup against Arkansas

Duke's zone defense was the story in Thursday night's Sweet 16 win, but how much success did the Blue Devils have with it?
Duke's zone defense was the story in Thursday night's Sweet 16 win, but how much success did the Blue Devils have with it?

As the old saying goes, “defense wins championships”— or does it?

The 2-3 zone scheme is no substitute for solid man-to-man defense. Much has been made about Duke’s switch to a zone defense in the second half against Texas Tech in Thursday night's Sweet 16 win, but in reality, that switch didn’t slow the Red Raiders down. Though the Blue Devils pulled out the win with some second-half adjustments, they primarily won behind their young offensive firepower rather than defensive strategy.

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In the first half of basketball, the Blue Devils played almost exclusively man-to-man, using the coverage on 94% of the Red Raiders' half-court sets. Texas Tech wasn’t really shooting the lights out, so down four points with potentially only 20 minutes left in his college coaching career, head coach Mike Krzyzewski opted to throw a wrench in the gears and mix in some zone defense.

In the second half, Duke played much more zone, only opting for man coverage on 48% of the opponent’s half-court sets. Entering halftime of the Sweet 16 matchup, Duke trailed Texas Tech 33-29, allowing only 46% shooting from the field and 22% from beyond the arc. Afterward, Duke did play better, but not defensively, allowing 40 points on 49% shooting in the second frame, but more significantly allowing 40% shooting from beyond the arc, a sharp increase from the first half.

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Over the course of the game, Duke used man on 50 half-court sets, allowing scoring on 19-of-50 for a 38% scoring rate. On the remaining 19 zone sets, the Blue Devils allowed scoring eight times, good for a 42% scoring rate. Proportionally, Duke fared relatively similarly regardless of coverage type, so it’s clearly not what made the difference in Thursday’s game.

Should the Blue Devils continue with man, or keep mixing in some zone? It probably doesn’t matter as much as the offensive strategy does. However, per Synergy Sports, Duke’s Elite Eight opponent, Arkansas, didn’t face a single zone defense against Gonzaga, nor run a zone defense on any half-court set that game.

The Razorbacks also don’t shoot the three-ball well at all, making only 31% of their attempts on the season. A 2-3 zone defense theoretically perfectly combats their style of offense, as the scheme prioritizes keeping bodies down low and clogging the lane in favor of allowing more open shots on the perimeter, which Arkansas isn’t great at making.

A combination of zone and man throws some unpredictability into the equation that could benefit Duke in Saturday's game, and the Blue Devils will surely look to take advantage of any edge they can get. With a maximum of three games left in the season and Krzyzewski's career, Duke must decide whether it’s time to man up or to zone in.

Editor's note: All advanced analytics are from Synergy Sports. 

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