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?
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.