How to beat a 1-3-1 zone
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Similar to the 2-3 zone, beating a 1-3-1 zone is about finding the open spots in the zone and exploiting them. The 1-3-1 zone is not as commonly used as a 2-3 zone, so some teams may find it harder to penetrate if they did not get enough practice before the game.
I found one example of a game where Michigan State executed a 1-3-1 zone offense very nicely against Northwestern. What follows are some strategies to break down this zone:
Key #1: Split the top defender
The first key revolves around the idea that the offense should always have two offensive player splitting the top defender in the zone. This allows the ball to be passed across the court to quickly take advantage of an opening on either side.
Notice in the pictures how the MSU players are spaced in the backcourt and are splitting the top player in the zone. This gives them an outlet to pass to if they get in trouble and the ability to start the offense from either side of the court.
Key #2: Get the ball to the middle of the zone
As is a key with the 2-3 zone, getting the ball to the middle of the paint or the foul line is key in carving up this zone. Watch here as MSU uses the cross court pass to get the defense shuffling, allowing them to get the ball to the opening in the middle of the zone.
In the first clip, you see the ball entered into the middle of the zone and then immediatly kicked out to the corner for an open 3. This shot was open because the wing player was focused on the player on the wing (who was responsible for splitting the top player) and the bottom defender in the zone was still covering the basket.
In the next clip, the ball is entered into the middle of the zone, where the offensive player penetrates with the ball toward the basket. MSU players from each side cut in from the corner and the defender under the basket is outnumbered, allowing for an easy dump off and a layup.
Note the options the player with the ball has when they get the ball to the middle of the zone. They can take the shot themselves, dump it off to one of the cutting wing players (depending on who the defense chooses to defend) or kick out to the corner for a jumpshot.
Finally, the big man in the middle takes it all the way to the basket himself. The middle is vulnerable in the 1-3-1 zone when you can get the defense moving and out of place. Since there are only two defenders responsible for the painted area, that place in the zone can be exploited.
Key #3: Dribble penetration is available
The following two clips show how a guard can penetrate this zone and create off the dribble. Notice how the offensive player penetrates quickly as the zone is moving as the ball gets passed across the court. The key is to penetrate quickly before the defense can recover and get set again.
Notice that the defense quickly collapses so a decision must be made on the spot to drive to the basket, pull up for a mid range shot or dump it off to a cutter. MSU played it well in these few clips as great decisions were made by the ball handler to get a couple buckets.
Like any defense, the 1-3-1 zone is not unbeatable. The keys are to keep the ball moving to get the defense out of sync, finding the open spots in the zone (the middle and the corner) and being able to create off dribble penetration.
Michigan State ran the zone offense to almost perfection in this game, shooting 51% from the field, many on short jumpers or layups like seen in the above clips. They showed the perfect formula for beating a 1-3-1 zone. Keep an eye out for these keys the next time you watch a game featuring a 1-3-1 zone.