COLUMBUS, Ohio-The list of reasons why the Ohio State men's basketball team lost to Iowa Sunday could read as follows:
• Ohio State turned the ball over 17 times
• Ohio State shot 33 percent from the 3-point line
• Ohio State's starting backcourt scored a combined eight points
• Ohio State was outscored in the paint by 12 points and in transition by 11 points
But more simply, the then-No. 3 ranked Buckeyes were unable to operate effectively against the Hawkeyes 2-3 zone defense for most of the second half.
"Lately we've just been passing the ball around and shooting a three at the end of the shot clock," junior guard Shannon Scott said. "We have to get the ball to the middle of the zone and make plays from there. We've been working in practice every day and have new sets to try to mess up the zone defense and make plays against it when we see it again."
Scott described what Ohio State has to do to perform well against a zone defense, and it appears the Buckeyes have been working on different plays to run when they see a zone defense again, which will likely be Thursday night at Minnesota.
"We probably play the most zone (defense) of anybody in the Big Ten," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino Jr. said.
Two seasons ago, Ohio State faced what is perhaps the most daunting defense in the college basketball world: Syracuse's lengthy 2-3 zone defense. The Buckeyes were able to get past the Orange in that Elite Eight contest to reach the Final Four.
How did that Ohio State squad perform effectively against the best zone defense in the country, and what can this Buckeye team take from that performance?
Be quick with decision making
On the Buckeyes' first offensive play of the game against Syracuse, Aaron Craft dribbled the ball at the top of the key. He swung the ball to Lenzelle Smith Jr. With William Buford in the corner, Smith found Deshaun Thomas posted up on the left block. Because Buford-a 3-point threat-was covered, Thomas had just one defender by him, and the then-sophomore forward quickly went straight up and banked the ball in.
That sequence took a total of five seconds.
Here's the play:
Against Iowa, sequences like that were rare. Ohio State's guards were passive with their ball movement, and because the Buckeyes' 3-point display (33 percent) was mediocre, many of the Hawkeyes defenders ignored Ohio State's perimeter options. They clogged the lane and prevented one-on-one matchups-like the one Thomas had-from being available.
Ohio State has a few players that can operate smoothly in the post-junior center Amir Williams, junior forward Trey McDonald and freshman forward Marc Loving-but they were unable to get the ball in optimal positions against Iowa.
For the Buckeyes to have success against the zone going forward, the passes have to be quick, there always needs to be an outside threat looming, and the post players, when they get the ball, need to be quick with their decisions.
Against 2-3 zone defenses, the post players, not the guards, need to be the best passers. Facing Syracuse, Jared Sullinger and Thomas worked together as well as anyone could have asked for. The two combined for 33 points, despite Sullinger playing just 26 minutes due to foul trouble.
One of the best sequences against Syracuse occurred early in the first half. After two quick passes on the perimeter by Craft and Smith Jr., Thomas received the ball just outside the right block. Two of Syracuse's defenders started to collapse on him, but before they could, Sullinger cut to the middle of the lane. Thomas bounced the ball to Sullinger, who spun, took one dribble, missed an easy lay-in, but got his own rebound and floated in a bucket.
Here's the play:
Ohio State doesn't currently boast two post players as talented as Sullinger and Thomas, but that doesn't mean they can't try to run plays that were used for its previous two all-Americans.
Against Iowa, Williams, McDonald and Loving-Ohio State's three main post players-had zero assists and rarely even passed the ball to each other. Williams usually gets the ball on the right block or in the middle of the lane. When he does, the Buckeyes would benefit by having its other post player cut to the space the zone defender-now likely guarding Williams-previously occupied.
This is a risky play, but one that can be extremely effective against a zone defense. When you have tall, athletic players that can pass the ball-Ohio State does-skip passes from one side of the floor to the other can capitalize on a zone defense that is shading towards one side of the floor.
Against Syracuse, Ohio State did this often. Thomas would often get the ball on the wing, or the corner, and the Orange's defense would shade towards him, leaving an Ohio State player on the other side of the floor wide open. On one play early in the second half, Thomas passed the ball from the left side of the floor to Buford, who was wide open on the right wing. Buford drove in past late recovering Syracuse defenders and made an open jump shot.
Here's the play:
The Buckeyes possess the players needed to run a play like this. LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, and Marc Loving each have the height and skillset needed to pass the ball over the top of a defense.
So that's how you beat a zone defense, Ohio State. Take note: Quick decisions, interior movement, and skip passes, among other things, will get the job done.