Friar Basketball

2019-20: Friars in the Zone

Duke Xavier

I’m going to try something a little bit different this summer: posting weekly articles that dig a little bit deeper into Providence’s style of play, successes, and shortcomings from the past season. The goal is to post these weekly and share stats that go beyond the box score.

Since the end of the season I have spent weeks compiling advanced statistics from the Ed Cooley era, and look forward to sharing observations throughout the offseason.

Providence concluded its 2019-20 campaign on a six game winning streak in large part to finding its offensive footing (in particular point guard Luwane Pipkins), but the staple of last season’s Friars came on the defensive end.

Providence spent a lot of time in zone last season, in fact, they played zone more than any team in the Big East, according to Synergy Sports. Providence was in zone on 20.1% of its defensive possession in 2019-20. That amounts to 13.3 possessions per game.

The only other Big East team that went zone on more than 10% of its defensive possessions was St. John’s, who played zone 15.9% of the time. Here is how the numbers break down (percentage of defensive possessions in zone):

  1. Providence: 20.1%
  2. St. John’s: 15.9%
  3. Seton Hall: 6.4%
  4. Georgetown 5.9%
  5. Villanova: 4.4%
  6. DePaul: 4.3%
  7. Marquette: 3.7%
  8. Xavier: 2.4%
  9. Creighton: 2.2%
  10. Butler: 1.6%

Ed Cooley has rebuilt Providence’s program in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most significant has been that the Friars are an absolute pain to play against. They aren’t always pretty, but they screen you to death on the offensive end and not only defend hard, but vary their defenses. With a majority of the league playing virtually all man-to-man, Providence gives conference opponents a different look by staying in zone for prolonged stretches. PC was not afraid to go zone against a great shooting Creighton team at the Dunk, and the result was a down shooting night for the Jays and a Friar win.

St. John’s and PC were the two most effective zone teams in the league. Providence turned its opponents over on 16.1% of the possessions in zone and only allowed a point on 38.4% of those possessions. St. John’s forced turnovers on 18% of their defensive zone possessions (top 20 nationally) and allowed scores on 34.6% of zone possessions. The Friars and Johnnies were 1-2 in turnover percentage out of zones in the Big East.

Not surprisingly, Syracuse played the most zone out of the D1 teams Synergy tracks (94.5% of possessions), while Jim Boeheim pupil Mike Hopkins’ Washington bunch was one of four teams in the country to play zone in over 80% of its defensive sets.

A sneaky good zone team? The Merrimack Warriors, who won the Northeast Conference championship in their first year playing Division 1 basketball. They won the title in large part to an effective zone. They played the second most zone in the country per Synergy (93.7%) and held teams to .775 points per possession — good for third in the country.

Now let’s get back to the Friars. Providence has played the most zone in the Big East in recent seasons:

  • 2018-19: PC was in zone 25.2% of the time, with Xavier’s 16.8% landing them at number two. PC’s .786 points per possession against were tops in the league, as was a 15.4% turnover percentage while playing zone.
  • 2017-18: Once again, Providence played the most zone in the league, albeit at a lower rate (13.6%). And again, their .876 points per possession were the best mark in the league.
  • 2016-17: The Friars were in zone on 18.5% of defensive possessions — second behind Xavier’s 23.6%.
  • 2015-16: PC played the third most zone in the league (12.5% of possessions) and sported the highest turnover percentage out of its zone (19.4%)
  • 2014-15: Cooley’s group lived in the zone with Kris Dunn causing all sorts of problems. They were in it on 41.2% of possessions, which surprisingly, was second in the league that year behind Marquette’s 51%. Opponents turned the ball over on 17.1% of their possessions versus PC’s zone.
  • 2013-14: Let’s stop here, in Cooley’s third year. It also marked his first NCAA Tournament team under Cooley. Providence was in a zone on 28.3% of all defensive possessions. That was good for third in the league that year behind Georgetown (30.9%) and Seton Hall (28.6%). Opponents turned it over on 15.8% of possession versus PC’s zone — a league best.

Interestingly, the farther back you look, the more frequently Big East teams played zone defenses. Providence’s 20% this past season seems high when most of the league spent 95% of its time playing man-to-man. Yet, a program like Seton Hall spent nearly 30% of its possessions in zone defense in 2013-14 and over 52% in zone D the year prior. When Steve Lavin was coaching St. John’s they would play zone anywhere from 25-60% of the time.

Zone defenses seemingly helped make Providence and St. John’s two of the best defensive teams in the Big East last season. St. John’s ranked second in points per possession against (.831) and Providence was fourth (.836), while St. John’s was first in turnover percentage (19%) and PC was tied with DePaul for second (18.2%), according to Synergy.

There is no reason to expect Providence to change its defensive approach next season. They should have good length across the board, especially if the long-limbed Jimmy Nichols can reinsert himself into the rotation. Of course, David Duke figures to be one of the best defenders in the Big East, if not the country next year. With his athleticism and 6’5 frame he will cause serious issues at the top of a zone.

A trouble spot could come with the departure of Kalif Young. Individual player data can be tricky to track in a zone defense, as scouts working for Synergy aren’t privy to defensive assignments from the coaching staff. With that being said, Synergy had Young among the best zone defenders in the country last season. His .381 points per possession against are insane — putting him in the 97th percentile in the country. Opponents shot 17.6% (3-17) against him in zone situations, which is far and away the best number on the team.

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