Inside the 1-3-1

The 1-3-1 zone Northwestern uses is both maddeningly frustrating to watch and also surprisingly effective.

It is not the typical zone defense that many teams use. It is looking to trap the ball in the corners and force everything away from the paint. For a team that lacks a big post presence and the ability to protect the rim on most nights, it is a good way to slow the game down and clutters up the lane to prevent too much interior penetration.

Its biggest weakness, at least in the way Northwestern runs it, is that it often puts the point guard at the bottom to run the corners. Because the Wildcats like to trap and pressure at the top of the 1-3-1, forcing offenses further away from the basket and to play more deliberately, any penetration into the middle can create the dreaded center-on-point guard mismatch at the bottom of the zone.

This defense fits because it is all part of the general strategy to slow the game down and limit possessions.

Even when teams know the 1-3-1 is coming, Northwestern is able to and does stymie and confuse offenses with this zone. For whatever reason, it is effective. Why is that so?

Kevin Trahan of InsideNU does a fantastic job breaking down the nuts and bolts of the 1-3-1 zone defense and why this team is especially fitted to run it.


NU’s current personnel is much better fit to run the 1-3-1 than most other defenses. Marcotullio and Swopshire, especially, are very well-suited to run the 1-3-1. Marcotullio has taken some heat for his defense in the past, mainly because he has trouble sticking with his man on the drive. However, he’s a very good on-ball defender, and his pressure has led to some catalyzing steals this year. In the 1-3-1, he doesn’t need to worry about defending the drive and can focus on pressuring the ball-handler, which makes him much more effective.


Indeed, smart athletic players at the top of that 1-3-1 zone like Jared Swopshire and Alex Marctoullio are imperative in this defensive scheme. They help push the ball to the wings and keep them from aggressively attacking the interior of the defense. Northwestern has done a good job keeping the ball out of the middle of the paint and squeezing the ball handlers on the perimeter, preventing them from getting into a rhythm.

Of course, it does not work well all the time. While the Minnesota game was a nice effort, it can only be considered an aberration for the moment. Northwestern is still last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency in conference play. There is now a much more confident team that has discovered its identity to some extent and how it needs to play to stay in and win games with all the injuries that have occurred.

Now playing confidently and efficiently, Northwestern’s odd 1-3-1 defense is becoming more and more effective and feeding an offense that needs any boost it can get. You wonder how long it can keep working before teams find the video and get more comfortable attacking it. Or you wonder if Northwestern will try mixing in other defenses to keep opponents off balance.

For now, it seems the 1-3-1 zone is exactly what Northwestern needs to slow the game down and get stops and turnovers. Switching to it — particularly Wednesday after Rodney Williams Austin Hollins went out leaving Minnesota without a primary ball handler — sparked that victory. For sure, Northwestern’s future this season will come down to the pace it sets on both sides of the ball.

  • Alaskawildcat

    OK, I’ll go on record again this year with the same preseason prediction I posted last year. – 10-2. Assuming Ohio State heads to the national championship 10-2 may be good enough to get us to Pasedena on New Year’s Day. I’m also going to go out on a limb predicting that The B1G will win both of the games in Pasedena.

  • MossReport

    I think the 1-3-1 works in spurts but unless we cut down further on our turnovers and shoot better at the line the season is done. Right now to stay in the picture for any excitement down the stretch NU needs to win 3 of the next 4 games. Can’t lay another egg like what happened at home against Iowa 2 weeks ago.

  • NUcappy

    Nitpicking, but Austin Hollins is the one who went out leaving them without a primary ballhandler. Williams stayed in and threw down a ridiculous alley-oop.

  • JM

    So here’s a question: Say the Cats beat Nebraska, Purdue and Iowa in the next four games (losing to Michigan). Do we start to get bubble chatter again? Seems this team actually has the signature wins it needs, unlike past years, but has more bad losses and fewer total wins. A 3-1 stretch in the next four would get us to 15-9/6-5 with, presumably, a pretty good RPI.

  • tump26

    The 1-3-1, while effective recently, is a gimmicky defence that good teams rip apart. Other than the mismatch down low as stated, it leaves the corner 3-point shots wide open and is very susceptible to the alley-oop and second chance points. I fear relying on this defense is short-lived. I’ve actually been very impressed in NU’s man-to-man D this year. The bigs recognition and step out on the pick and roll (Olah, Turner) have been impressive. What must happen for any NU team to make real strides is to alter the offensive scheme in which the Center actually faces the rim and shoots a 15 footer or drives to the basket. Also, the screens NU set are weak, typically not allowing players to be free from their defenders. I’m a constant supporter but a frustrated one with a coaching staff that doesn’t have answers when on both sides of the ball we struggle. Adjustments are critical, just as they are in football.

    • kinsella316

      If you have active wings that pressure (like Swop and Marcotullio on Wednesday), it does a good job of limiting open corner looks. The man has been better this year,I agree.

      Are you saying that Olah and Turner should shoot more? I think you’ll see that next year and going forward, but asking more offensively is outside of their current skill set, IMO, at this time. Let the offense run through the talent now (Hearn, Sobo, Tre, Swop) and anything you get from your 5 spot is gavy. Olah does look hesitant out there outside of 5 feet, but I see some good things too.

      • tump26

        I’m saying once or twice a game. You don’t, then the opposing center doesn’t even need to guard that position. If the center has to guard, you open up the middle of the court for back doors and drives. That’s the essence of the offense based on 3-pointer looks and back door cuts. In football, you run the ball to keep the defense sound, even if you’re a passing team. You become predictable, the offense becomes easier to defend. Let’s see how it goes…

  • kinsella316

    It’s great that NU doesn’t have to play 1-3-1 all the time like in years past. Actually being able to play some man just increases the effectiveness of the 1-3-1 when used strategically in small doses. The game on Wednesday was a perfect example of that strategy working.

  • Bandcat

    Totally agree with the comments about being able to play more man to man and and springing the 1-3-1. All about adjusting to the situations. Hope we are able to Prinetrate the Huskers today. Big O may get a confidence builder here versus less athletic bigs on Huskers..Combination of him stepping up and better free throw % crucial rest of way..Go Cats!