Ranking the Best Zone Defenses in NCAA Basketball
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.
6. Scott Drew: Baylor
Scott Drew, one of those pesky Drew boys (see Homer and Bryce) has brought the Baylor program back from the doldrums of a time most Baylor fans would like to forget. Allegations of payments to players, loss of scholarships and a murder were the beginning to Drew’s arrival.
Coach Drew is not just a fan of the zone at Baylor. He’s a fan of zones. He’s been heralded and despised for his use of the 1-3-1 zone and also the 3-2 zone, and that’s when he’s not coming up with some other variation. The nice part for Drew is that he’s enjoyed quite a bit of success.
The problem with success is that it’s never enough. Baylor is on somewhat of a rebuild after taking it on the chin against Kansas, and that Kentucky win doesn't have the shine it did at the time. But Baylor lost some great players from last year and should bounce back.
The zone could stave off the wolves until the cavalry arrives.
5. John Beilein: Michigan
He has done so with a ferocious 1-3-1 zone that suffocates opposing offenses, although in recent years he has used it less and less frequently.
As Beilein’s tenure has proceeded, the talent level at Michigan has increased, giving him the players he has been dreaming of to make that zone create havoc.
With the recent loss to Ohio State being the only blemish on the season, Michigan is once again making noise in the NCAA.
4. Bill Self: Kansas
Bill Self hasn’t always been known as a zone coach, but for what he’s gotten out of it, he might as well be.
In the 2008 NCAA regional final, Self’s Jayhawks faced their former head coach, Roy Williams, and were tied at 47 at the half.
With only a few minutes left on the clock, Self famously switched his defense up to a hybrid triangle-and-two and completely stymied the Tar Heels. The Jayhawks earned a trip to the Final Four, where they eventually won a national championship.
Self has implemented different zone looks as his years have worn on and even likes to use a zone press from time to time.
Self knows that teams don’t prepare for the zone and uses it as his tempo-changing rabbit punch when the opportunity presents itself.
3. Bob Huggins: West Virginia
Teams facing Huggins-coached teams know that moving the ball is a logistical nightmare. Huggins excels at teaching his players to cut off passing lanes, forcing opposing offensive players to spread the floor and making passing an all-night headache.
Knowing where to stand in a zone versus knowing where to be positioned is of the utmost importance to a zone’s success, and Huggins is a positioning mastermind.
That being said, West Virginia is having a very mediocre year, proving that, while you can teach positioning all you want, if you don’t have talented players, your defense won’t really matter that much.
2. Rick Pitino: Louisville
Rick Pitino has taken what he’s learned from Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and run with it.
He’s figured out how to start in a zone or a zone press and instantly morph into a man-to-man defense, depending on the movement of the ball, and back again when the opportunity presents itself.
Pitino was once known for running teams that threw three-pointers at the basket like they were pitching coins at the carnival and hoping that as many would fall as possible.
He made an exodus for the NBA, but after returning to his former Kentucky team’s cross-state rival, Louisville, Pitino has reinvented himself as a defensive master, which includes lots of zone looks and confusion.
He’s also got the current No. 1 team in America, according to both major polls, but that could end after Saturday when his Cardinals face….
1. Jim Boeheim: Syracuse
…Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange.
There’s nothing revolutionary or surprising about this. Boeheim has been coaching the 2-3 zone since before any of his players were a good idea.
Boeheim has the zone down to a perfect science that has already earned him a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame and over 900 wins for second all-time in Division I coaching wins.
Syracuse is the gold standard of the zone, or as San Diego assistant coach and former Syracuse player Tony Bland put it, Syracuse has the “Bentley of zone defenses.”
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