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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for one thing: the 1-3-1 zone. And three pointers. New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for two things: the 1-3-1 zone and three-pointers. And backdoor layups. I'll start again.

New Michigan head coach John Beilein is known primarily for three things: the 1-3-1 zone, three pointers, backdoor layups and an almost fanatical devotion to the colors blue and yellow. Amongst the many things new Michigan head coach John Beilein is known for are the 1-3-1 zone, three-pointers, backdoor layups, and an almost fanatical devotion to the colors blue and yellow.

This is where the youtube link goes.

Anyway. Beilein's bizarre 1-3-1 zone is virtually unheard of in big time college basketball. It's a favorite pregame topic of coaches and reporters in the same way Purdue's pass-wacky spread offense was before every team in the country started running it. And it's coming to a team near you.


As you might expect, it deploys one player at the top of the key, three players lined up across the court a few feet closer to the basket, and one unfortunate soul who is tasked with "running the baseline," a hellish duty that requires a quick, hopefully lanky defender to sprint from one end of the floor to the other whenever the ball is reversed (which is frequently against the sort of trapping 1-3-1 Beilein operates), closing out potential three-point shooters in the corner and hoping the defense recovers smartly enough to help him when he funnels potential drivers away from the baseline. The center (#5) plays in the middle of the floor, attempting to cut off passing lanes and harass entry feeds. West Virginia actually tends to employ a guard at the 4-spot. The guy up top is another guard and then the #2 and #3 guys are wings, small forwards, or general what-have you. (West Virginia, either by choice or necessity, plays small at virtually all times.) The guy on the baseline is guy is the linchpin of the defense and if you've only got one you'd better hope he's Rip Hamilton. As Ken Lindsay laconically notes:
Even if you are fortunate enough to have such a player possessing these qualities, the defense will become more ineffective as the game progresses. Weariness takes its toll.
West Virginia's version is trap-heavy. In a 1-3-1, the defense usually rotates to face the ballhandlers whenever he moves away from the dead center of the floor on the perimeter, but from appearances in the NIT final this often results in a point guard sitting approximately next to #2 on the first figure with no fewer than three defenders poised to collapse on him should he try to drive the ball to the hoop. C Jamie Smalligan would come out to the edge of the paint as two guards shaded themselves outside, inviting the ballhandler to drive himself into trouble. I've seen versions of this diagram with the baseline guy shaded to the strongside, shaded to the weakside, and directly under the hoop. IIRC WVU usually opts for the post-packing strongside, which makes entry passes improbable. The Mountaineers will rely on the size of the center and the speed of the four guy to cover the inevitable skip passes. A step late and it's an easy basket. A team that's not well coached will get obliterated.


The trapping forces a ton of turnovers. This year opponents turned it over on nearly 24% of their possessions, good for 39th overall. The year before they were 26th with a 24.5% opponent turnover rate. For unfortunate comparison, this is like playing Michigan every game of the year. In fact, West Virginia opponents are even more generous than Courtney Sims, Jerrett Smith and the rest of the no-I-insist-you-take-it All Stars. I believe this has a hidden effect on WVU's always-awesome offensive numbers, as the frequent turnovers lead to fast break opportunities. I wonder if anyone's looked at offensive efficiency in the immediate aftermath of an on-court turnover (WVU gets a lot of these; the past three years they've been top fifty in steal percentage); I bet they would find it has a measurable salutary effect.

The traditional way to beat a zone -- rain threes on it -- appears less effective against the 1-3-1 than most. West Virginia was seventh(!) in 3FG defense this year at 30.3%, and opponents didn't get off an inordinate number of them: 33.7% of opponent shots, good for a middle-of-the-pack 151st. This isn't nearly as consistent as the turnovers, though. Last year's Sweet 16 outfit was still above average at 34%, but the two years before that were ugly. However, in no year did teams get off an inordinate number of threes. WVU has hovered around the national average.

And the 1-3-1 has an eerily Bo Ryan-esque ability to avoid giving up free throws:

Opp FT Rate27.831.920.828.8
Nat'l Rank17th

Over the last four years the worst Beilein team has been distinctly above average in this category.


The 1-3-1 is a high-risk, high-reward defense. The trapping can lead to turnovers and fast break opportunities, but an effectively broken trap usually leads to a wide open shot or a layup. Though the three-point field goal percentage is ambiguous leaning-to-good, the two-point percentage is... uh... not:

Opp 2FG%
Nat'l Rank65th

I have no idea what the deal was with 2004, but whatever it was it did not carry over to the last three years. When opponents get off a two-point shot, it's usually a good one.

And when they manage to miss one of their two pointers they're fairly likely to get the ball back anyway. Anyone who caught themself begging Brent Petway to box out just once in his damn life this year is advised to avert their eyes:

Opp Off Reb%
Nat'l Rank297th

Holy hopping hasenfeffer! That is Scottie Pippen-level ugly. Dear, departed Wonk would no doubt term it Edvard Munch-level horrific. If those numbers were a daytime talk show host, they'd be Rosie O'Donnell. If they were a hairstyle, they'd be Gene Keady's combover. If they were a student body, they'd be Notre Dame. I think what we're trying to say here is that the defensive rebounding numbers put up by Beilein's West Virginia teams are not very good. Yes. I think that's the point.


It works okay once you adjust for the strength of WVU's opponents:

Defensive Eff
Adj Defensive Eff

Those numbers are consistently good but not great without considering the hidden effect of all those turnovers.


I'm of the opinion that Beilein prefers the 1-3-1 zone because it covers up for the athletic deficiencies he's been forced to operate with his entire career. There's only one guy who really benefits from being a gazelle-type athlete, and that's the guy charged with the Sisyphean task of running the baseline. Everyone else has to be smart, aware, and well-coached. It also helps him run a small lineup on the other end of the floor without getting hammered for it on defense, as the zone defends the post mostly with quick hands, quick doubles, and the elimination of entry angles. That should help cover up for Michigan's decidedly lacking post depth next year. We have Udoh, Sims, and Rutgers transfer Zach Gibson. All are legitimate posts but spindly and lacking power. They won't have to do a ton of one-on-one post defending, so any potential foul trouble should be mitigated.

The best news about the guard positions is that the 1-3-1 should minimize the shortcomings of Jerrett Smith and Reed Baker, allowing their three-point marksmanship to hit the floor without Michigan turning into a layup line on the other end... or at least no more of a layup line than the 1-3-1 usually is. Assuming Kelvin Grady matriculates, his quick feet and hands would be welcome in the #1 role, as the ability to spring quick traps and double the post is a key part of the defense.

Unfortunately, the guy who seems best suited to play Pheidippides along the baseline is Jevohn Shepard and, unless Tommy Amaker is an even worse coach than everyone in the world thinks, he's not a fit for the offense since he can't shoot or handle or pass. But boy can he run! If Beilein can get him to function in the offense he's the best option, but that's doubtful. Other options: Manny Harris is 6'5" and supposedly cat quick. Kendrick Price may get unearthed from the end of the bench in the new offensive system and he's a SF/PF tweener who may have the combination of size and speed necessary to play the role.


There's a manual on the 1-3-1 trap from FIBA detailing the Italian women's team and their deployment of the scheme. Lots of graphs and tips and such, plus awesome broken English:
1. The most important advantage is that this defense is unique in "influencing" the movement of the offense, forcing them to play an unconventional offense, a style of play that is risky and moves them out of their usual offensive spots.
2. It can quickly change the direction of the game and offer decisive breaks for the defense.
3. It's a spectacular defense, that creates excitement with its aggressive traps.
4. It "pumps up" the defense, when wellmade stops and steals occur and "shakes" the defense, when players are lazy and not playing aggressive basketball.
5. It creates great problems for the offense to move the ball, forcing them to use lob and bounce passes, slow passes that can easily be stolen.
6. It creates extreme pressure on the offensive perimeter players.
7. It will often create a "paralyzing" effect on the opponents, causing them to make bad passes and force their shots.

This is a very risky defense (wide spaces to cover, traps), and a little mistake will allow the offense to easily beat you. There is no balance when blocking-out on defense and on the help-side rebounding. It requires a lot of energy, so this zone cannot be used throughout the game. In addition, it's a very technical defense and requires players with specific skills in
order to play it well.

This defense requires players, who are able to sacrifice themselves and, from my experience, I find that women will often guarantee that this happens most of the time.
▼ Players must totally believe that what they are doing is the best for the team. A coach must be able to sell this defense to the team in order to make it work.
▼ Players have to be quick and have excellent athletics skills.
▼ Very important aspect: players must be skilled in aggressive man-to-man defensive tactics.
▼ You will need months of practice and plenty of patience to build this defense so it can be regularly applied.
(the quick and excellent athletics skills seems a strange assertion. Beilein's deployed it for 29 years with non-quick, non-athletic players .) shows you how to set up the 1-3-1 in College Hoops 2k7, showing some action in a West Virginia-Pitt game. check out the video embedded along the right side of the screen.

A bunch of zone-beating plays on this page; play #4 specifically attacks the 1-3-1 for an alley-oop.

A former college player talks about attacking various zones:
The weak spots in the 1-3-1 are the baseline and right under basket. I will often tell coaches that once a 1-3-1 or a 1-2-2 is recognized to bring up a second player to the top. This creates the first match-up problem. One defender can't guard two players. In any good defense the wings will bluff and recover until the other defenders get in their designated spots. That's why coaches will continually yell to move the ball against a zone. The defense is shifting so much that if you move the ball quick enough a gap will open up and an easy shot will follow. Nothing kills on offense more than standing still. Add to that, standing still with the ball.
Fascinating article from American Basketball Quarterly, a coaches' trade rag, all about beating the 1-3-1. Terry Waldrop of Texas Weslyean:
“We’ve been real fortunate the past two years – we’ve had real good shooters so we haven’t had to deal with the 1-3-1 a lot,” Waldrop said. “Three years ago people would zone us when we got off the bus. The real key is reversing the basketball pretty quickly and hitting those gaps with penetration. Then we’re looking to shoot a 3-pointer out of it. As soon as we see a 1-3-1, we’re looking for the 3. I’d like to shoot a 3 or a lay-up every time against it. What hurts you against the 1-3-1 is the 18-foot 2-pointer.

“You’ve got to be able to attack it and you better be able to shoot it. It’s the worst defense in the world when it comes to making you complacent. You’ll just kind of sit there with the ball over your head waiting for something to happen if you’re not careful so you have to be in an attack mode.”
There's a lot more. Highly recommended. Note this passage at the beginning of the article:
Still, there is no perfect defensive scheme. Every defense has a weakness (although that’s often difficult to tell when West Virginia is playing its vaunted 1-3-1 zone) and the key is to find it, prepare for it and manipulate it to your team’s advantage.
It's vaunted! We're going to have something vaunted other than an ability to dribble off our own feet!


Anonymous said...

Ohio University under Tim O'Shea has used the 1-3-1 and it has been a disaster. If there is any team out there that can shoot long-range, you're toast.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thorough examination of the stats and Xs and Os of the 1-3-1. One thing to add to this is that Beilein's 1-3-1 has several variations. Sometimes they will run and jump the dribbler near midcourt, sometimes they automatically trap a certain sideline or certain perimeter offensive player, etc. Watch for this throughout the season, just as a team will get confidence in their zone offense, there will be a switch. Also, the number of times that teams turn it over on inbounds plays vs the 1-3-1 is fun to watch.