Kentucky Basketball: Why Switch to Zone Would Solve Wildcats' Defensive Issues

Thad NovakCorrespondent IDecember 18, 2013

CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 14:  James Young #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats defends a shot by Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during play at the Dean Smith Center on December 14, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 82-77.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Painful losses to North Carolina and Baylor have made it clear that the reality of Kentucky’s 2013-14 season is a long way from the potential of the Wildcats’ imposing roster. One of the biggest problems has been a defense that’s allowed 47 percent shooting from the floor (or better) in all three of the ‘Cats’ defeats.

Willie Cauley-Stein is a devastating shot-blocker, but he obviously hasn’t been enough to keep opposing offenses from victimizing Kentucky. If John Calipari wants to maximize the impact of his one elite defender—not to mention getting the best out of the unremarkable group surrounding him—it’s time to take a hard look at his reliance on man-to-man defense.

Calipari has never been a coach who uses zone to any significant extent, and his teams at Kentucky have usually played superlative defense without it. However, the current Wildcats roster looks ideally suited to going to the kind of 2-3 look that both Baylor and Syracuse have used to such great effect this season.

In the first place, the ‘Cats have very little to lose: The two biggest reasons not to play a zone are both inapplicable to this team.

Man-to-man defense didn't help Kentucky much against Bryce Cotton.
Man-to-man defense didn't help Kentucky much against Bryce Cotton.Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Zones make a team vulnerable to a great three-point shooter (hence the existence of the box-and-one), but Kentucky can’t guard those guys anyway. Playing man-to-man didn’t keep Providence’s Bryce Cotton from nailing five of his nine long-range tries against the Wildcats, or even stop Robert Morris’ Karvel Anderson (4-for-9 from deep while his hapless teammates shot 11-for-52 from the floor).

Similarly, zones are susceptible to giving up offensive rebounds (because a defender doesn’t have a specific player to box out), but the ‘Cats are getting destroyed on the offensive glass even when they’re in man. They couldn’t possibly have done any worse against Baylor’s Rico Gathers or Boise State’s Ryan Watkins by playing zone.

Moreover, Kentucky has a lot to gain from the switch, most obviously that it would become much less vulnerable to the pick-and-roll. It’s not impossible to run that play against a zone, but it’s much harder, and after getting torched by point guards such as Marcus Paige and Kenny Chery, Kentucky needs to take any chance it can get to cut down on the points it surrenders off the dribble.

A zone would help Kentucky get more defensive benefit from its outstanding length.
A zone would help Kentucky get more defensive benefit from its outstanding length.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky’s starting lineup also has plenty of the two primary assets Jim Boeheim has exploited to build his zones at Syracuse: length and mobility. Tall, agile defenders such as C.J. Fair have made the Orange zone the best in the country, and the Wildcats’ starting lineup (including 6'9" Julius Randle and 6'6" James Young at the forward spots) is built to much the same specification.

A nice side benefit of a switch would be a reduction in foul trouble, especially for Andrew Harrison. The 6’6” point guard would be a terror clogging passing lanes at the top of the zone, and he wouldn’t need to pile up as many cheap fouls bumping into drivers if he had the whole frontcourt ready to step in behind him.

Most obviously, a zone would give Cauley-Stein free run to patrol the paint without worrying about leaving his own man to help from the weak side.

He probably won’t block any more than the 4.4 shots per game he’s already swatting—after all, that’s the fourth-best mark in the country. However, he also won’t give up as many points when the other team either recovers one of his deflections, or baits him into helping and then pass across the lane.

Calipari doesn’t have much experience teaching the zone, but neither did Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan until recently. Both of those elite defensive coaches have shifted to zone looks in the last few years because their personnel called for it, and it’s time for Calipari to do the same.

Many man-defense diehards pooh-pooh the zone as a refuge to hide subpar defenders, and Calipari may well have preached the same attitude in the past. This year, though, he’s coaching some subpar defenders, and he needs to look at whether his preferred scheme is making it tougher for his team to win ballgames.