Anyone who has played pick-up basketball has heard the question, “Do you want to go man-to-man or zone?”
The likelihood of zone being played greatly diminishes as the quality of the players increases and vice versa. Young men are taught that the zone defense is gimmicky and is only effective at hiding bad players, saving good players from foul trouble and switching up the tempo of a game—meaning slowing it down.
This, of course, is nonsense. I’ve expounded on the merits of the zone in the past, but the zone is going the way of the dinosaur. Many college coaches have some zone plays in the book but will only break them out on special occasions.
There are two likely reasons why.
1. Coaches don’t know how to coach the zone effectively.
2. Coaches don’t have the personnel (length) to play the zone effectively.
Coaches who employ the zone know that it can be a powerful offensive weapon that creates bad shots and allows for long rebounds and great transition basketball.
John Chaney is comfortably into his retirement, and Jim Boeheim may not be far from his. Both coaches implemented a vicious zone, with Chaney’s match-up zone being a frustrating hybrid and Boeheim’s 2-3 zone being that old George Foreman jab that you know is coming but can’t avoid.
Fran Dunphy took over the reins at Temple when Chaney left and put that tired zone to bed.
Jim Boeheim’s heir apparent, Mike Hopkins, will likely hold onto that defense for quite a while, considering it’s what he knows and what has worked at Syracuse for almost 40 years.
So, who is left—other than Hopkins—to carry on the zone torch?
Besides the old basketball coach in Syracuse, there are still a few holdouts who use the zone effectively and could get the zone off life support for the next generation of hoops fans to enjoy.
With the criteria being my eye test, here is a list of the college coaches who lead the pack in zone defense and excellence.