This year we have seen head coach Danny Manning mix in a bit of zone defense at times as a “change of pace” look for opposing teams. The man-to-man defense for Wake Forest has not been very good this season and some have posited that the zone defense has been working a bit better in the spurts that it has been used.
I wanted to take a look at the breakdown statistically to see if this was in fact true, or an example of the “eye test” deceiving us.
All of the stats I have are from Synergy, and I want to preface these numbers with the statement that they define a “possession” differently than KenPom or any other site does.
I am actually not sure exactly of how they define “possession”, but I think they count an offensive rebound as a different possession overall, where most other sites count an offensive rebound as the same possession.
Due to that, the overall points per possession are much lower than what other sites have, but the key thing here is the comparative value of the man-to-man defense vs. the zone defense within Wake Forest, as well as how it compares to the rest of the teams in the NCAA from a percentile standpoint.
Overall Wake Forest runs man approximately 84% of the time, which ranks 125th nationally.
Syracuse runs zone 94.2% of the time according to this to lead the nation in zone defensive usage. It looks like Syracuse has run man on 90 possessions this season, which is likely on situational isolation plays, transition, or perhaps zone so poorly that it was identified as man. On the flip side, four teams have not run a single possession of zone all season.
What we see above is that although Wake Forest’s zone defense is better than the man-to-man percentile relative to the NCAA, overall the points per possession is better when the Deacs run man-to-man (.897 points per possession vs. .912 points per possession).
Basically Wake Forest runs zone defense better (from a PPP standpoint) than other teams in the NCAA run it, but from a PPP viewpoint it is still better to run man-to-man based on these stats.
To simplify things, if these numbers were applied over 100 defensive possessions then man-to-man defense would allow 89.7 points while zone defense would allow 91.2 points. Not a huge difference overall, but the man-to-man is slightly better.
This is an oversimplification of man vs. zone defense though, particularly with regards to what would happen if Wake Forest actually committed more to zone defense as opposed to situationally using it. We cannot expect everything to stay the same if Wake did want to play it more.
If Danny Manning did want to use more zone then it would require more practice time, which would (in theory) make it a better zone overall, resulting in a lower point per possession. However, it would also take away the element of surprise from the other team, which would likely result in more game-planning from opposing coaches as to how to attack the zone.
I cannot say for certain one way or the other how this would work out and impact the points per possession.
Another downside to just using these numbers is the sample size of zone possessions (roughly 10 per game), and also the lack of ability to determine which games the possessions came from. Obviously if we ran zone against Duke and man against Army then these numbers would be skewed inaccurately due to the caliber of competition.
There are certainly some pitfalls to this snippet of statistical data that does not contextualize the entire season and how man vs. zone truly looks for Wake when adjusting for SOS, but what it does provide is a suggestion that perhaps the zone defense is not the “magical answer” to our defense that some may think it could be (myself included from earlier in the season).
Even though Wake may be better compared to other teams at effectively running the zone to lower opposing points per possession, the man-to-man defense for Wake still is the better defense based on this data.