Syracuse’s zone defense was a big key in the win over Hofstra tonight, 85-60. "Syracuse's size and length when they are in that zone and their ability to come out and contest shots made it very difficult," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "They did a very good job of extending their zone, and we weren't able to make plays on the baseline." (AP).
So for the holiday weekend, here are five reasons why I would use a zone defense, and then six more reasons why and when I would not.
First the reasons for the zone.
Reason 1: Teams are unfamiliar with running an offense against it, and any defense that is unfamiliar, is too tough for another team to quickly adjust to it. It is also tough for them to mimic it during practice during the week. I am a huge fan of running an offensive / defensive scheme in any sport that other teams are unfamiliar with. I think in addition to the strategic advantage, it gives you a big recruiting advantage (I was a huge fan of the Orangemen’s pass option offense for that reason, and I think for close to a decade the Steelers had a huge advantage in the NFL being one of the only teams to run a 3-4 defense).
There are types of players that are well suited for the zone defense that don’t necessarily work well in a man-on-man. Players like Kueth Duany and Hakim Warrick are perfect for zone defense work; less suited for man-on-man where they could get muscled around. They are slender and long limbed; they reach into a lot of space, and quickly move to areas on the court. Similarly, big bodied slow players with a good court IQ are perfect for the center position on the zone (guys like Craig Forth). They don’t have to put up a lot of stats, but they take up a lot of space, preventing opposing teams from running players through the middle of the court. Demetris Nichols has the prototype body to excel at playing forward in a zone defense.
Reason 2: When played well, the zone defense is highly successful at reducing shooting percentage. The zone defense invites teams to take the low percentage shot (which is what you want to happen); the opponent thinks they have an open shot, but it’s one the defender can quickly close on and force the opponent to shoot. When guys stay focused on defense, and don’t wander from their zone duties, it reduces the impact of offenses running picks and screens (because a defender is guarding a space, not a player, and a pick works because you are preventing a defender from following the player as he moves from one space to another).
Plus, you can very effectively trap from a zone, particularly in the corners of the court. The zone defense invites the offensive to swing the ball around the perimeter, and you can draw them into swinging it into the corner for a designed trap.
Reason 3: It slows down the opposition’s offense and the clock is your friend. You have to work the ball around the zone to break it down. Many teams are impatient of offense, looking for the quick strike. This causes turnovers and frustration for the opposition.
Reason 4: It can help protect a guard who is in foul trouble. Since he doesn’t have individual player responsibility he can lay off the opponents in his area a little bit, and reduce his risk of a foul.
Reason 5: You can run a fast break well off a well played zone defense. Since the guards don’t have a man responsibility, it’s easier for one of them to break out down court during the defensive rebounding phase (the other guard needs to stay ‘home’ and rotate into a block out).
Now there are definite reasons why I would stay away from the zone at times in a game.
Reason 1: You can not hide a big man in a zone, and if he’s in foul trouble he can quickly draw more. If Darryl Watkins has 4 fouls, the opposing team just needs to attack the center of the zone. If Watkins shies from the player, that player gets an easier basket. And if he challenges him, he’s increasing the risk of the foul.
Reason 2: If the opposing team is having a very hot night of shooting, they may be stretching your zone defense out too far, opening up the low entry pass too much. Sometimes the other team is playing well, no matter how well your zone is doing, and you’ve got to switch out of it.
Reason 3: If you’re trailing in the game and need to make up points with time running short, the zone defense eats up too much time. At this point the clock is your enemy, and you need to make the opposing team’s offense act quickly.
Reason 4: You’re players are too physically or mentally tired. Contrary to what many people think, playing an effective zone is very tiring and requires a lot of movement. Zone defensives fail when players start to stand around, or get lost in the scheme. Man-to-man defense, while also tiring, is more intuitive for a player to keep moving… the nature of following one man on defense motivates the defender to keep moving.
Reason 5: You have the wrong personnel to play the zone. Small players like Josh Wright are not the ideal players for the top of a zone; he’s more effective in a man defense situation where he can get up close to an opponent and hound him around the court; if the opposition has a big shooting guard, they could overload to Wright’s side of the court and create mismatches.
Great shot blocking centers can often be a detriment to your zone defense. While they clean up the mistakes of their teammates, they often leave their position to do so; one of the biggest sins in a zone defense is leaving your space unguarded. If the shot blocker leaves his space, someone else needs to rotate into the position. So if your defensive players don’t know what they are doing, they will leave openings everywhere on the court that smart opponents will take apart.
Reason 6: It’s tough to block opponents out in the zone defense. The defender is responsible for a space, not a player, and when the ball goes up for a shot, he’s got to block out a space anticipating an opponent being there, while looking for the rebound. In man defense, he likely already has a position next to his opponent, and can feel where he is while looking for the rebound.
One of the biggest reasons I think coaches don’t play zone defense is that you look bad when the opposition beats it, and it makes it look like you’re not coaching. It’s very easy for a fan to second guess the zone. When the opposition is making its shots, it looks like you’re not defending at all. And when they are missing their shots, you often don’t get credit; people just credit the poor shooting to poor shooting, not your defense.
Whereas if you are playing man-to-man defense, your players are moving around constantly. If you get beat, the fans will blame the players, because its easy to see which players got beat by their individual man.
It’s akin to coaches playing ‘prevent defense’ in the NFL. Most coaches will do it, even though it’s been proven over and over again, that all the prevent defense really does is prevent the defensive team from winning. But if an NFL coach were to play his normal defense and one of his defensive backs gets beat deep, it’s the coach’s fault for playing a defense that allowed that. Whereas if you play a ‘prevent defense’, it’s the greatness of the opposing team’s quarterback moving the ball down the field (even though your defense is inviting him to do that!).
There are situations for all types of defense in college hoops. I’m an advocate for a healthy mix of them, particularly switching the zone and man-to-man during the regular flow of the game. It requires discipline on the court and a good court leader to get that message across.
Bottom line, no matter what defense you play, if you execute it well, you will win more often than not. And likewise, when you play your defense poorly you will likely lose.