Twilight of the zone? ‘Cuse sticks with it, others move on


INDIANAPOLIS — It had been nearly a decade since West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had to draw up a game plan to beat the infuriating zone defense run by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, going all the way back to their time together in the old Big East.

The job hasn’t gotten any easier.

Faced again with that 2-3 zone in the NCAA Tournament last weekend, Huggins watched his No. 3 seed Mountaineers shoot 37% from the field while turning the ball over 14 times in a 75-72 loss that sent the Orange on to the Sweet 16.

“You don’t just roll out of bed and play 2-3 zone the way they do,” Huggins said with a shrug. “He’s the best that’s ever coached the 2-3 zone and they’re the best to ever play it.”

They’re also one of the last to play it.

The No. 11 seed Orange’s run to a second-weekend matchup with No. 2 seed Houston is proof that a zone done well still works. But most programs that once relied on some variation of it, including fellow Sweet 16 teams Baylor and Southern California, have shifted toward man-to-man approaches with the zone merely offering a change-up.

It’s almost as if those playbook pages are tucked away behind a sign that reads: “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass.”

There are a few reasons for this. Some have to do with the programs themselves, such as their personnel, while others have to do with opposing teams and the very way the game is played.

The top-seeded Bears, who play fifth-seeded Villanova on Saturday, for years played a 50-50 split between man-to-man defense and zone, where players are responsible for covering areas of the court. But coach Scott Drew has turned to using man defense almost entirely the past two season, and his personnel is the biggest reason why.

“We went from a team that was really long on the front line to a team that is a smaller, quicker team,” Drew said, alluding to his guard-heavy lineup, “and obviously a pressure man-to-man style favored our personnel more.”

The sixth-seeded Trojans once unleashed their zone about as much as Baylor, but coach Andy Enfield has gone from using it about 45% of the time to about 10%. When they do trot it out, it’s usually because of a matchup problem that it creates for the opponent, which was the case in a blowout win over Kansas last weekend.

USC wanted the Jayhawks to shoot over the top and the vast majority of their 3s wound up hitting metal rather than nylon.

Jayhawks coach Bill Self thought about abandoning his beloved man-to-man defense to slow down Isaiah Mobley and the Trojans offense. He’s made such a drastic change before in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s been rare.

“You’ve got to make some shots,” Self said after the 81-58 loss, by far the Jayhawks’ worst NCAA tourney defeat. “It was disappointing. I go back and I said, ‘What if we had done this or that … (or) played the whole game zone?’ I don’t know.”

So if it’s so effective, why does this seem like the twilight of the zone?

One reason is the time it takes to master. Few players stick around a system long enough to learn it well, either moving onto the NBA or transferring to another school. Plus, they grow up playing man defense, and it’s simply easier and more effective to fine tune what comes naturally.

Another reason so few teams zone: The game itself has changed.

The old-school zone is easily broken by teams that shoot the ball well, especially from beyond the arc. But since the 3-point line was introduced in 1980, it has become the second-most popular shot behind the dunk. Even erstwhile post players such as the 6-foot-11 Mobley are shooting from the perimeter — he had four 3s in the first half against Kansas.

That extends the defense, creating pockets in the zone and opening lanes to the basket — and that renders it ineffective.

In fact, Baylor used that exact game plan when it beat Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. The Bears hit 16 shots from beyond the arc that night, cruising to a 78-69 victory in their first-round matchup.

“I remember we really shot well that game and you get different shots versus zone,” Drew said. “Most of the year, 80% of the teams or 90% of the teams, you’re playing against a man defense. It’s a different rhythm, different feel against a zone.”

Having played zones so often themselves, the Bears were prepared to deal with it.

Most teams don’t have that luxury.

“The zone is just so different,” said Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim, who probably knows it as well as anyone — except, of course, his dad. “I’ve seen teams in the ACC prep for it two, three times a year, they know the offense and stuff, and these teams (in the NCAA Tournament) see it maybe once every five or six years. The Syracuse zone is just different.”

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