In late November, the sight might have been an aberration.
Midway through the second half, Wichita State’s Craig Porter, Jr. strolled across half-court and found Missouri in a rare alignment. Nick Honor is stationed at the of the key. Behind him, Sean East II was planted at the nail, with Ronnie DeGray III to the left and DeAndre Gholston to the right. And then there was the last man standing: Kobe Brown at the restricted circle.
Sure, MU fiddled with a zone defense for a couple of possessions each game. A soft non-conference slate made tinkering and dabbling possible. But inside Koch Arena, the stakes were a smidge higher.
The Tigers had just halted a 16-0 run that let WSU surge ahead after trailing by seven at the break. Now, down by five, coach Dennis Gates’ crew needed one commodity – stops. Multiple ones. Preferably strung together.
Instead of a marauding man-to-man, Gates deployed a 1-3-1 zone. For the next eight possessions, the Tigers behaved in a way we didn’t think possible: passive. They sagged off. They kept the ball in front. They clogged up gaps. And they bought themselves time to whittle away at the Shockers’ lead, withstanding a kill shot on a night where they rallied for an 88-84 win in overtime.
Back then, those five minutes came off like a deft in-game pivot. Today, we might consider them foreshadowing.
Over the past five games, the Tigers spent 24.3 percent of defensive possessions playing zone, turning the 1-3-1 from a wrinkle to a staple. The recent uptick is why MU ranks 48th nationally – and ninth among high-majors – for zone usage, per Synergy Sports tracking data. It’s not just quantity, either. Mizzou’s allowing just 0.686 points per possession, ranking 15th in Division I.
Against UCF, for example, nearly half of MU’s defense possessions saw them operating in a 1-3-1 setup. And last week, the Tigers’ escalating defensive pressure started from the same base. It also raises a question: How prominent will that defensive identity be as the Tigers usher in SEC play, starting tonight against Kentucky?
If you know Gates’ history, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the 1-3-1 proved a durable option. While at Cleveland State, his teams steadily ramped up their use of the zone, finishing 21st nationally last season. But it was also easy to be skeptical about how seamlessly that preference might translate in Columbia. No doubt, Gates’ overhauled roster has some athletic pieces. Unfortunately, what it lacks is abundant size and length. And the Tigers with those traits – Aidan Shaw and Mo Diarra – currently find themselves bringing up the rear of MU’s rotation.
Doing so also means bucking recent trends.
Zone usage has slowly declined among high-major programs in the past five seasons. Sure, we frequently see 15 to 20 of them finish among the top 100 nationally each season. However, the average amount of time spent playing zone has eroded. In 2017-18, it settled around 38.4 percent. By last season, it slipped to 20.3. Meanwhile, just two power-conference programs — Syracuse and Washington — operate with the zone as their operating system.
Zone Usage | High-Majors Among Top 100 Nationally
It’s also understandable why the zone has fallen out of fashion. Let’s start with the obvious: 3-pointers. Back in the day, before catch-and-shoots ruled, that was a minor concession that came with zoning up. Not anymore.
At the same time, man-to-man schemes have evolved to counter offenses that rely far more heavily on pick-and-rolls, weave actions, and dribble handoffs. For example, the pack line offers gap control and forces contested jumpers. And in the past three years, no-middle concepts have come into vogue. Who made it famous? None other than Baylor coach Scott Drew — who was once synonymous with the 2-3 zone in Waco.
Then there’s recruiting. Elite prospects are well attuned to what the NBA covets: long, fluid athletes rooted in systems that put a premium on switching and guarding multiple positions. So, in some ways, relying on zone throws up a potential barrier and makes talent acquisition a more arduous task.
So, why is Gates turning to a system his peers are mothballing?
For starters, it helps MU shore up rim protection. The strongest teams on the schedule are getting there 27 times per game and putting up 1.321 points on those point-blank attempts, per Synergy. At a minimum, the zone denies gaps for straight-line drives and, theoretically, prevents direct passes to cutters.
Next, stretches of zone defense reduce the opportunities for opponents to carve the Tigers up in ball screens. It’s not that dribblers are using pick-and-rolls to generate scoring opportunities. Because MU switches everything and is aggressive in its rotations, opponents wind up with ideal mismatches or stress the defensive shell to a breaking point. Ultimately, the passes out of those ball screens — worth almost 1.116 PPP — prove fatal.
The bloodletting against Kansas is a prime example. MU’s transition defense was a sieve. The Tigers didn’t tag rollers. They ran so many bodies at a dribbler that multiple catch-and-shoot opportunities appeared around the arc. And simple pressure-release sets exploited overplays for backdoor cuts.
Embracing and expanding the use of the 1-3-1 is evidence of moderation. Oh, it’s also working. In four games against KenPom top-100 teams, MU has only allowed 0.867 PPP when playing zone. That efficiency metric spikes to 0.941 PPP in man-to-man. Practically speaking, it’s the difference between being competent and ranking 332nd nationally in raw defensive efficiency.
Mizzou’s methodology is also unique. Let’s start by looking at clips from its outing in Wichita.
Typically, a 1-3-1 zone dials up the pressure and traps the ball in the corners. To counter that pressure, offenses try to get the ball behind the zone, forcing it to collapse and flatten out. It gets the ball to the short corner or skips it over the top via diagonal passes.
But watch the Tigers rotate as the ball reverses from one wing to the other. They don’t close a snare. Instead, MU takes away direct passes to the nail and the strong-side corner. It also has a weakside wing sink to take away the diagonal.
Gates and his staff modified the 1-3-1 to fit this roster. For starters, notice who is in the middle of the zone. Traditionally, a post play anchors that spot, tracking an opposing big and denying entry to the high post and low block. But MU’s goes small, using a guard like Sean East II. And instead of sliding down, East steps out toward a wing as the ball swings around the perimeter. Meanwhile, Nick Honor cycles in behind.
Next, peek at Brown. He barely steps away from the restricted area, much less outside the paint. Assuming the ball does reach a shooter in the corner, he might have to close out. But suppose you’re clogging perimeter gaps and keeping the ball above the break. In that case, the combo forward is a steady form of insurance.
Imagine for a moment you’re a WSU guard on the wing. What do you see? Two guards can close a gap if you drive the ball. Manage to split them, and Honor, East, or Hodge might be waiting at the second level. And you still might confront Brown as the final barrier.
How did the Shockers counter? First, they screened the zone, especially when the ball was in the middle of the floor, right as MU’s guards got ready to pass the baton. Throwing off that timing allows a driver to get into the middle of the zone. But even after WSU gained access, they were still attempting difficult shots. Or they were relying on flaky shooters to drill deep spot-up attempts.
For completeness, I’ve included the spare snippets from the KU game. Yet MU only played four zone possessions, including three midway through the second half. It’s hard to draw out tendencies from a small sample, but the impact is worth noting.
During a minute or so of game action, KU had three reserves – Joseph Yesufu, Bobby Pettiford Jr., and Cam Martin – on the floor. MU trailed by 17, and if the Tigers were going to make a push, that was the moment. Throwing out the zone helped MU buy enough time that it had multiple chances to get the lead down to 10 or 12 points and apply semi-legitimate game pressure.
We have the opposite issue with UCF. During my typical rewatch, I clipped 17 possessions where MU set up in a 1-3-1. The Knights, however, seemed content to do what MU wanted: hoist up jumpers. Quite often, UCF’s guards wouldn’t even try to move the zone. Once the ball reached the second side – and there was even a hint of space – a shot went up.
At a minimum, a wing was already stationed close by for a closeout. But for good measure, one of the two guards coming out from the nail could also contest a shot. And just as vitally, many of these shooters weren’t Tyler Hendricks, the Knights’ leading scorer and one of the nation’s best freshmen.
Granted, there’s always volatility and variance regarding 3-point shooting. I have an equal number of clips showing the Knights burying guarded shots against the zone. At a minimum, it’s annoying, but at least the risk is known when you set up in this alignment.
I’d spend more time dissecting what happens when a team gets the ball to spots that MU’s trying to cordon off.
UCF managed to get the ball below the break three times, and each possession generated a decent outcome.
In the first clip, Brown probably should have helped Mosley as Hendricks drove the ball. But, at the same time, East didn’t need to leave his zone to help. The result is Honor backfilling – and a void opening for Jayhlong Young to flash into the middle of the area for a jumper. The following clip shows MU letting a pass out of a trap in the corner for a jumper. And the final clip shows Honor stepping toward a player in the middle of the zone – allowing a man to drift to the corner for a 3.
UCF also found some success in reaching the short corner. For example, the first clip shows Michael Durr receiving an entry pass and drawing a foul. Yet that was a one-off. The two clips that follow it are probably more notable. In both, the root cause is the same: a weakside wing doesn’t slide down far enough to take away a diagonal pass. In the first case, Hendricks forces a shot when he should have spotted C.J. Kelly on an angle cut. But the second one? That’s an easy lob for the frosh.
On paper, though, the upside might be hard to spot. That day, MU’s defensive efficiency was worse when it played zone (0.996 PPP) than when it guarded man-to-man (0.889 PPP). That disparity owes itself to shot selection. MU’s 1-3-1 limited the Knights to 1 of 7 shooting inside the arc, but the Knights drilled 6 of 11 attempts from long distance – most of which were guarded. Again, variance can be a potential killer.
It’s why the Illinois game, at least to me, serves as a potential blueprint.
Going into Braggin’ Rights, we knew two things about Illinois. First, the Illini’s ball handlers are young. Second, their primary initiators — Skyy Clark and Coleman Hawkins — are turnover prone. So, we wondered just how assertive MU might be in applying pressure.
Rather than smother their rivals, the Tigers slowly ratcheted up their pressure. To do so, they opened the game with a token 2-2-1 press before dropping into the 1-3-1. The goal: make the Illini burn clock – usually 10 seconds — just to initiate their offense. And when they did set up, they couldn’t flow into five-out or spread sets.
On the first possession, the Illini can’t enter the ball to Coleman Hawkins at the elbow. Their wings are stagnant. The front of Mizzou’s zone doesn’t leave a crack for Skyy Clark or Matthew Mayer to exploit. Eventually, Clark tries to probe space near the slot and kicks the ball to Terrence Shannon, Jr., but Kobe Brown has a quick closeout.
On the next trip, Clark feeds Hawkins in the mid-post, but Brown bodies up the junior. While Hawkins tries maneuvering to the block, Tre Gomillion slides over, digs at the ball, and forces a kickout. MU defenders are tight to shooters off the ball and rotate cleanly on the kick out and reversal. Clark has got no choice but to launch a step-back 3 – which doesn’t beat the shot clock.
By Illinois’ third trip, they’re simply settling for a guarded corner 3 after one slow ball reversal – the exact opposite of what coach Brad Underwood wants. To stay in touching distance, the Illini relied on getting ahead of the press. But once Mizzou’s transition game cranked up, the Tigers consistently forced Illinois to inbound the ball against a set defense.
Slowly, Mizzou began shifting its defensive looks, transitioning to a sagging man-to-man and then to the more assertive brand we’re accustomed to seeing. (If you want to explore that progression, take a gander at this week’s edition of The Verdict.) The Tigers were still disruptive but mitigated some risk and got a toe-hold in the game. Caught in a 17-2 run, the Illini were getting crushed under game pressure — and failed to establish any semblance of identity offensively.
Earlier in non-conference play, I’d heard there were plans to implement more of these concepts — after MU shored up its man-to-man scheme. Therein lies the rub. And maybe a bit of hope. Remember how I said the zone proved more effective than man-to-man at tamping down opponents’ efficiency. Take a look at the progression outlined in PPP.
- Wichita State: 1.020 PPP
- Kansas: 0.983 PPP
- UCF: 0.889 PPP
- Illinois: 0.843 PPP
That, folks, is an improvement. It also underscores how zone and man-to-man aren’t binary choices. They can be synergistic, one enhancing the strengths of the other. If anything, the 1-3-1 bought this staff to address problems with its base defense that popped up sporadically against low-majors and plagued it against KU. Now, moving into SEC play, MU has another club it can pull out of the bag.
Gates has tried to underscore that he doesn’t want his team’s progression to have an endpoint. Adaptation is a necessity. And sometimes, it demands a little patience to see tweaks take hold.