Arizona rose to No. 12 nationally following a perfect 9-0 start to the season and a Wooden Legacy Tournament title that featured wins over Pepperdine, Penn and Wake Forest. Achieving perfection at home was the first test. The Wildcats passed with flying colors, winning all six games by an average of 30.3 points per contest. The second test was winning in a stale, neutral court setting, far removed from the always sold out McKale Center. Arizona also passed that test, getting contributions from starters and role players alike to overcome three competitive games.
Now, the competition really ramps up in Arizona’s first true road test of the season against a team that features a dynamic defense capable of wreaking havoc on even the best opponents.
Baylor’s 1-1-3 Zone Defense is not innovative. After all, any variety of teams are utilizing it today. However, what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in simply being a very difficult defense to crack when players are in sync, communicating and executing on the defensive end of the floor. Complicating things is Baylor will shift from the 1-1-3 Zone to true man-to-man, as needed, to confuse and stall offenses.
Baylor (6-1) is well-coached in the intricate details of the 1-1-3. Further, they’ll be deploying it in front of a sold out Ferrell Center crowd on Saturday, with the type of long and lanky defenders that are ideally suited to frustrate the opponent.
Understanding the 1-1-3 Zone: Here’s how it Works
The defense looks just like it sounds
Guard 1 is positioned at the top of the key. Guard 1’s initial role is to pick up the ball handler as far out as he wants. Guard 2 is located near the free throw line. His initial responsibility is to defend the high post area and anticipate the first pass of the offensive set. Forward 3 and Forward 4 are stationed on the wings and again, can defend as high up the floor as the offense is operating. They’re initial responsibility is to prevent direct passes into the corners. Center 5 starts in the middle of the paint and is responsible for defending the low blocks.
Guard 1 and Guard 2: Interchangeable Nemesis’
It is the responsibility of Guard 1 and Guard 2 to trade off on-ball pressure and high post coverage. As the offense begins, Guard 1 will defend the ball handler initiating the offense. Forward 3 and Forward 4 can help the guards in denying passes to the wing, with emphasis on denying a direct pass to the corners. Once the first pass is made, Guard 2 will rotate out to defend the ball while Guard 1 shifts to defend the high post. This constant interchanging of the guards puts two of the quickest, ball-hawking type defenders in some of the best places for an offense to actually breakdown the 1-1-3 Zone.
Once the Ball Goes Wide
Forward 3 and Forward 4, again, can help the Guard 1 and Guard 2, and can come out and as high as the offense is operating. A key thing to understand is the 1-1-3 is not a pack-it-in type of zone. Instead, it features a lot of man defense principles, with the ability to trap and double team ball handlers almost anywhere on the floor. In short, there’s really no safe place for the offense to hold the ball and reorganize anywhere inside of 30 feet from the basket.
When the pass goes high and wide, the high post Guard becomes the primary defender. The strong side Forward will provide support, as needed, while denying easy pass entry to the baseline corner. Center 5 will defend the strong side low block. The initial Guard will shift off the ball and slide to defend the strong side high post. On the weak side of the floor, the weak side Forward will position himself inside and deeper than the lowest offensive player on their side of the court. The intent here is to force offenses into “skip” passes. Baylor will literally laugh itself silly if Arizona is throwing skip passes all game long.
The reason is the skip pass, in this type of defense, is simple to counter. Importantly, if Baylor defenders maintain their assignments, a skip pass to the opposite baseline corner is a nearly impossible feat. This only leaves a skip pass, at best, to the free throw line extended or higher. In this likely scenario, the high post Guard will chase the pass and close out on the ball handler receiving the pass. If they are late, the weak side Forward can hedge up to deny dribble penetration off the catch, while quickly retreating to again deny any attempt at a pass to the corner, or the short corner.
If the ball ever does go to the short corner, it’s almost always an automatic double team by the strong side Forward and Center 5.
Defeating the 1-1-3 Zone
Typically, against any two- or three-guard zone front, an easy way to kick start the offense is to set an inside screen on the primary defender to free the ball handler into the heart of the zone. That’s difficult against a 1-1-3, initially, because the defense features two very capable defenders able to easily switch on the screen and deny dribble penetration. Commonly, offenses facing a 1-1-3 will instead go with a two guard attack at the top, make the initial pass wide to get the defense moving and rotating, and then attack from there.
It’s definitely easier than it sounds.
To be effective against the Baylor defense, offenses need big men who can handle the ball and make passes out of the double team, guards who can not only dribble and drive, but knock down mid-range jumpers, and a 3-Point shooter or two that actually keep the wing defenders (Forwards 3 and 4) honest in defending the perimeter rather than pinching down and in, and helping the defense completely take away any semblance of inside scoring.
Offenses also cannot simply stand around and work the perimeter passing game to move the defense and look for holes to make easy entry passes into the paint. The 1-1-3 is man principle zone defense, so it requires a motion offense with a lot of chip screens and physicality.
Arizona’s Chance of Success
Purely from an offense versus defense standpoint, Arizona does have the right pieces in places to have success against the 1-1-3 Zone. Arizona has a variety of guards who can all shoot from the perimeter and attack off the dribble. Similarly, Arizona’s big men are mobile and physical on the low block. Further, Zeke Nnaji and Stone Gettings (if medically cleared to play) are capable of hitting any variety of edge jumpers outside the painted area. Finally, if Baylor extends its 1-1-3 Zone defense into any sort of initial full or half court press, again, Arizona’s guards are more than capable of handling pressure in the backcourt.
Ironically, one of the no-go zones for any offense against a 1-1-3 Zone is the short corner, where it’s basically a guaranteed spot where Baylor will trap. However, with Arizona’s skilled big men, look for the Wildcats to take some early chances with passes to the likes of Nnaji or Jeter in the short corner. If they remain disciplined, keep the ball high, and execute passes out of the double team, Arizona can get open looks almost anywhere on the floor. Particularly, if they load the painted area and force Baylor’s zone to collapse in the key.
Similarly, the high post and skinny post areas, which are generally in the teeth of the defense, can also be exploited by the likes of Nnaji, Josh Green, and even Ira Lee, who has proven effective early on in using an explosive dribble to create separation and get to the rim. Again, if Arizona loads the painted area with someone like Nnaji at the high post and Jeter on the low block, Baylor will be forced to fully defend the key, leaving the perimeter more open than usual. It could also lead to 1-on-1 situations on the low block where both Wildcat big men have proven they can operate and score on any size opponent.
When the ball moves to the strong side of the court, expect to see Arizona test out Triangle sets to force Baylor defenders into making difficult decisions. This normally is not an effective strategy, but if Arizona can overload one side of the floor and position two 3-Point shooters on the same side, each with an ability to also attack off the dribble, Baylor will be forced to basically defend man-to-man on the wing and baseline corner shooters, while also defending the post. Arizona, if playing well and as a team, can certainly exploit that defensive look with a series of dribble drives and kicks. Wildcat guards Green, Nico Mannion, Dylan Smith, Jemarl Baker and Max Hazzard are all capable shooters and ball handlers.
Speaking of kicks, here’s the kicker. You never want to throw a skip pass against a 1-1-3 zone. It’s easy to defend and is a shot clock killer. However, a dribble drive and kick across the defense is a different story. That’s like kryptonite to any zone defense and the 1-1-3 is no exception. Keep an eye on whether or not Arizona’s guards are able to accomplish this type of attack when attempting to break the Bears down, defensively.
Even if Arizona plays well, winning at Baylor will not be easy. There are so many X Factors entering Saturday’s game. Notably, Arizona starts three freshmen. None of them have yet to play in a true road game. Similarly, despite playing nine games to date, this overhauled, new-look roster has yet to play in front of a truly hostile road crowd together.
Add in the possibility of turnovers, foul trouble, Gettings being healthy enough to play and not only add depth, but add another big man who can knockdown mid-range jumpers, and the simple fact that the Wildcats could simply be missing “open” shots, and this whole thing can become a mess, fast.
Oh, and Baylor can score the basketball, too. The Bears are averaging 80.2 points per game this season, and are coming off a recent win over No. 17 Villanova. Their only loss this season was a 67-64 setback to Washington, a team the Pac-12 Media predicted to finish higher in the conference standings than the Wildcats.
All that aside, though, it’ll be easy to see if Arizona will be in a position to win in Waco on Saturday, assuming they survive the second television timeout. If Arizona is able to get dribble penetration, minimize turnovers, set crisp off-ball screens, overload one side of the floor, and force Baylor defenders to react rather than anticipate, the Wildcats will have every opportunity to make open shots and pull off what would be a NCAA Tournament resume-making road win.