Eight in the box: a look at Steve Lavin's variable zones vs Cincinnati

USA TODAY Sports

Red Storm's length allows for many different defensive looks - looks that surprised the Bearcats in Saturday's win.

Basketball is a game of adjustments, sometimes from game to game and others from play to play. Against Cincinnati - a game St. John's was expected to lose by double-digits - St. John's adjusted their look and frustrated Cincinnati to the tune of 31% shooting on the way to an upset win.

How did the Johnnies frustrate the Bearcats?

Steve Lavin likes to utilize zone defenses to stifle opponents' attacks. Unlike the patented 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has been implementing at Syracuse for 36 years, Lavin's zones are more unpredictable with many possible permutations.

St. John's utilizes both man-to-man and zone defenses, along with a combination match-up zone look. Made famous by former Temple coach John Chaney, this scheme allows for the defender to guard the ball-handler with close precision while knowing there is a "help-side" zone away from the ball.

Its greatest strength is its ability to confuse offensive facilitators into thinking they are facing a straight-up man-to-man set, with the paint-protecting effects of a zone.

For the Red Storm, this defensive set allows them to keep their lengthy big men closer to the basket and their guards along the perimeter, regardless of how an opponent chooses to attack. With the shot blocking of shot-blocking freshmen forwards Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson, the zone gives St. John's a chance to keep its shot deflectors in position to alter shot-attempts from close range.

Since the match-up zone is a high-pressured scheme, it requires certain personnel and execution for it to be carried out correctly. In Lavin's first year at St. John's, the Red Storm was experienced and athletic - the necessary (but not only) formula for a successful match-up zone.

Until this point, the current group of players has struggled to find a consistent defensive identity. Last year, the issues were a combination of depth and inexperience.

After the Johnnies' big win over Cincinnati where the defense looked solid, St. John's could be finding its stride defensively - or at least the path to defensive consistency.

But Lavin is always willing to "tinker" with the schemes, especially when things don't go right. So what exactly did he get his players to do to the Bearcats that made them look so uncomfortable?

"We learned some things against Villanova because they hurt us with the three-point shot from the top and the high ball screens," Lavin mentioned. "So there are times where we have to extend our big and bring him up top to show on some of those screens."

But didn't we just say how the whole point of the match-up zone was to keep the bigs down low? That's Steve Lavin for you.

"Then we kind of raise up on the wings and it almost becomes like a one-three-one against a really good shooting team," he added.

Once Cincinnati began executing offensively in the second half, St. John's had to make further adjustments to the zone to avoid relinquishing the lead they had built up for 30 minutes.

"What they did late which was a good counter on Mick's part was they kind of spread us out and attacked us off of the bounce," Lavin continued. "Then we tried to compact them a little bit more with what we call our 23 pack, almost like putting eight in the box for football."

The man is never short of an appropriate analogy, is he?

Now St. John's comes home for three games at Madison Square Garden, when they'll welcome Rutgers, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. The three squads are shooting 35%, 33%, and 42% from three-point range respectively, and play differing styles offensively.

Against three teams, St. John's could very well play three different variations of its match-up zone defense. Even so, in-game adjustments will likely have to be made as conditions and needs change.

But Coach Lavin has never been afraid of change on the fly. [Enter analogy about change here.]

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