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Tony, the Zone is Your Friend

Posted by Jo-Jo on March 17, 2008

I want to preface this post by letting all you readers know that I started writing this thing well over a month ago. It was table, along with most of my other feeling on this site while I was dealing with off the site issues. But, now that I’m back, and inspired by the glimpse of the 2-3 zone we witnessed last week against the Cardinal, it’s time to drop the hammer. Here we go . . .

A sign of a great coach is that they can adjust to their personnel. I have seen highly respected coaches over the years begin to flounder because they try to force player into a style of play that does not match their skill sets or athletic abilities. Players are what they are on a daily basis and development doesn’t happen over night. But, a game plan can.

I have commented over the past few weeks that I believe a Zone defense would be a helpful adjustment for this current crop of Cougar basketball players. And it has been widely contested, and I support this opinion, that the Cougar defense is not living up to the hype that they received last season. Even though coach Bennett has commented in the past that he felt the team was playing good basketball during their struggles of the season, I believe this site has firmly disagreed. Unlike my partner, Nuss, I tend to work from a more matter of fact approach. You will not see me using any of these in-depth quadratic equations that Nuss finds (I find them very valuable, but I’ll leave that kind of research to him). I look at the game from more of an X’s and O’s perspective with the naked eye. In that research I’ve been able to validate, in my own mind, all of the number analysis that Nuss has published in this site. So to go off about that would be beating a dead horse. But, in this post I hope to prove that Zone defense could make this team, that has hung tough in the best conference in the land, even better than they currently are.

Let me start by debunking some of the myths that surround the Zone Defense. The first and largest myth is that you can’t defend the three from the Zone. I’ll just come right out and say; who cares. The Cougars haven’t defended the three well all season and unless Taylor Rochestie and Derrick Low grow four inches each, and develop quick feet sometime in the next couple of weeks, that point is totally worthless. Nuss has pointed out during the season that the defensive woes of this team are personnel related, so something needs to change, because the players can’t. Also, the 1-3-1 Zone Defense actually defend the three fairly well. The only hole in the 1-3-1 is the corners, which are hard to get to without penetration, and penetration would be limited against the Zone. The Cougars have the perfect personnel in their starting lineup for a 1-3-1 Zone; Weaver at the top, Rochestie and Low on the wings, Cowgill in the middle with Baynes down low. This allows Weaver to pressure the ball at the top, keeps Rochestie and Low from having to chase speedy guards all over the floor and they will have plenty of help without their teammates having to leave a man, and it plants Baynes under the basket as a last line of defense and a corner on the rebounding market. But the man who makes this work is Cowgill. From the spot on the middle he is in support of every other player on the court, and I believe that he IS athletic enough to handle that. It also puts him into position to crash down on help defense to get some weak side blocks and collect rebounds.

(as I write this, Syracuse just beat #8 Georgetown with a 2-3 zone. Granted I think that Georgetown is overrated, but that just happened)

It has been mentioned by Nuss that the biggest problem on defense this season is the loss of the shot blocking pressence of graduate Ivory Clark. Most of Clark’s blocked shots came from crashing down on help defense. Again, keeping Cowgill in the middle of the 1-3-1 would provide the opportunity for him to help down on the attacks from anywhere on the floor.

The second major myth about the zone defense is that it is lazy. Again, totally untrue. The zone requires that you beat the other team down the court first to set up into defensive position. It also requires that you pick up your responsibility on transition defense, not getting caught looking for your man. You have to hustle back on defense every time the ball changes posession, then you rest.

While running a zone, as long as you get back on time, there is a built in couple of seconds for the team to rest while the other team brings the ball up court. Once the other team starts it’s offense, however, it’s all hands on deck. This piece of rest that is naturally built in to the zone defense would be wonderful considering another issue that the authors of this site have made point of; the excedingly large number of minutes played by the starting unit. It maximizes the amount of time players have on the floor. An effective zone actually allows players to play more minutes without tiring.

And so here we are, Tony broke the Bennett mold last week by showing us a few minutes of a 2-3 zone. And, you know what? It worked. Over the course of 3 to 4 minutes late in the game against Stanford on Friday night the Cougs were able to disrupt the Cardinal offense enough to start scraping back into the game. Unfortunately, because of a couple of bad offensive posessions the Cardinal lead that had been cut into was regained and that was the end of the zone. Needless to say I was disappointed. I felt like that move was working in the Cougs favor and I didn’t see one good shot attempt, that didn’t come in transition, for Stanford. Maybe, just maybe, if Tony had gone with the zone earlier and longer, that game may have been more interesting down the stretch.

As I commented earlier today, I wish that TB had put this into action a bit sooner this season, not for the effected of that moment, but for the practice. Though the zone was moderately effective against Stanford, it was a bit worrisome watching them trying to execute the finer points of running the zone. They looked like a group of guys who understood the zone in theory but not in practice. It was a bit loose, and a bit sloppy. But, if they could be that effective for 4 minutes against a team as good as Stanford, while playing a loose and sloppy zone, how much better would they run it if they had some game experience with it through out the season. I guess we’ll never know.

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4 Responses to “Tony, the Zone is Your Friend”

  1. Christian said

    Not following you on this one – why would you zone a team that has high % three ball shooters. You leave them open for threes. Like you pointed out – they lack size and we zoned the Lopez twins with poor outside shooters from Stanford.

  2. Jo-Jo said

    This isn’t about Winthrop, this is a point in general about how the team has had a less effective defense over the course of the season do to personnel problems.

    And, as I said, not being able to defend the 3 point shot with a zone is a myth. You can defend the 3 if you know how to run it.

  3. johnnycougar said

    I can agree with a lot of this, though I think man to man defense is the most forgiving talent-wise – that is, when you don’t have a lot of size or athleticism then it is easier to overcome with hustle in man to man than with speed and awareness in a zone. Probably our starters could pull this off regularly but Harmeling and Forrest have enough trouble keeping track of everything already, and I can see them as potential weaknesses in running a zone. But in general, it would be pig-headed to NOT consider throwing in a zone when our D is failing, and I was glad to see it vs. Stanford. Hell, it worked for a bit there as their guards just threw up terrible shots.

    Also, for the record, wasn’t the zone we showed a 1-3-1? It looked like it to me, with Low up top. He was running side to side too much to be sharing responsibility up top in a 2-3.

  4. Box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses are pretty useful at the college level too. One of the reasons I’m pretty sure USC will beat Kansas State in the first round is that Floyd’s guys are used to running defenses that are designed to shut down 1-2 scorers, and that’s exactly what K-State relies on.

    I don’t think it’d be much help against UNC or Notre Dame, but it would be a very useful weapon against Winthrop. It’s a bit late to start practicing it now though.

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