The struggles of Villanova’s zone offense
Against Boston University, Villanova was frustrated into an offensive efficiency of around 0.9 points per possession, well below their average of 110.6 coming into the game. Much of this was due to the zone defense of Boston, as Villanova struggled to dribble penetrate against the zone and settled for a large number of three point shots. While the offense of Boston was not enough to keep them in the game, they showed that a zone defense could cause Villanova to struggle on offense.
While some credit has to go to Boston for taking away dribble penetration, the inability of the Villanova guards to penetrate into the penetrate to open up space for the offense is a bit troubling. The defense did do a great job of not allowing penetration, as you can see from the following frame. Look at the defense shaded toward the ball, to take away the driving lanes.
As we will see below, Villanova struggles shooting 3’s, so Boston was content to allow open 3’s if they did not allow dribble penetration. However, the inability of the guards to attack the zone off the dribble is troubling. They were slow to attack off ball movement and allowed the defense to rotate over to the ball before settling for long range shots (41% of their field goals against Boston were 3’s). In the play highlighted above, Maalik Wayns may have been able to find a driving lane if he would have attacked right when he caught the ball. Instead, he caught the ball and held it, allowing the defense to rotate and take away any driving lanes.
Against a zone, the dribble drive is crucial to open holes in the defense and the guards of Villanova struggled with this against Boston. They need to be better at this to beat stronger zone defenses. If they look to attack as soon as they make they catch, they may find more opportunities. This didn’t always work, as shown the clips below, but it will be their best option without a dynamic creator off the dribble.
Another issue with the zone offense of Villanova is their lack of a three point threat. Coming into their game against Boston, they were shooting 33.2% from 3’s, 190th in the country. In the game against Boston, they shot 25.9%, as they made only 7 of their 27 attempts. Their lack of a three point threat hurts them against zone offenses, as they cannot convert they open shots they get from beyond the arc.
Many of the three point attempts against the zone offense of Boston were open looks. Since Boston was so focused on stopping penetration, they allowed Villanova to have several open opportunities but Villanova was unable to take advantage of these open looks. If they continue to struggle like this from long distance, more teams will zone them and take away dribble penetration while allowing open shots from 3.
The big men of Villanova struggled to score against the zone, as they missed several easy opportunities in the paint. They are not strong offensive threats in the half court and this was evident against the zone defense of Boston. When they got open in the post, they struggled to finish the close shot, denying Villanova many scoring opportunities.
The one positive of the big men against the zone was their offensive rebounding, as the Wildcats pulled down 16 offensive rebounds as a team. This is a positive for the team but the fact that the big men struggle so much against a zone outside of this aspect hurts the zone offense of the team. Similar to penetration, having big men who can score around the rim will really help a zone offense, especially when your team struggles to shoot from 3. Villanova is not getting much production from their inside players, except for their offensive rebounding, and it hurts their offensive efficiency against a zone.
It will be interesting to see how many teams will play zone against Villanova the rest of the season. They have been one of the best offenses in the nation so far, as they ranked 24th in offensive efficiency before the Boston game. However, they showed that they can struggle against a zone, even when an average defense such as Boston U is playing that style. This may lead more teams to try to zone against Villanova and the Wildcats need to figure out how to improve their zone offense quickly.