Thursday, January 27, 2005


In the Zone

The Zone defense. When I grew up playing basketball this is what I would hear from Rec League coaches. "We cant play man, let's just play zone". I remember coaching a youth league team and trying to install a zone defense. Little did I know that kids play a zone about as well as William Hung sings "She Bangs". Everyone tries to break down the SU zone so I'm going to give it my shot. So why does the SU zone work and what are the myths that the SU zone has broken down about the zone?

The Myths
1. The zone is for lazy defenders. This might be the case when you're youth league team stinks and dont want to run, but in the world of college basketball the zone is for the athletic. Im sure before Temple's John Chaney made the zone somewhat repopular (is that a word?) some coaches thought that you could use the zone to give your team a rest, but not today's zone defense. The zone must be active. An inactive zone defense has holes in every area of the floor. Example- Providence played a zone defense against SU this year and SU got every shot they wanted and GMac threw two alley-oops to Forth. It forced Providence to play man.
2. Teams that cant play man to man play zone. This is a popular one. Lots of fans think that because you play zone you just arent good enough to play man. Well if thats the case I'm sure every NBA team would play exclusive man. But the rules have changed to let teams play zone and lots of teams do it. The zone defense at its absolute best can actually be better than a man defense. Example- Texas, which plays exclusive man, played zone against Oklahoma State and beat them because of it.
3. The center is the most pivotal player in the zone. For a long time people thought this was the case and even today I'm sure some people think that this is true. The theory goes a center in the middle will deter shots in the lane and grab rebounds. Unfortunately they are wrong. The most important players in the zone are the two guards. They must cover wing to center of the court and dive down for any entry pass into the middle. If you dont have quick guards, you dont have an effective zone. A center is important, but not as important as the guard play. Example- SU's zone. From 1996 on, the centers are Otis Hill, Etan Thomas, Elvir Ovcina, Craig Forth, Jeremy Mcneil. Hill was undersized and Ovcina and Forth were just smart players that took up space. You could make an argument Mcneil was a premier shot blocker but for every block he got a foul. Thomas is the only one of the group to be a dominant shot blocker and force in the middle. You dont need the big player in the middle to have an effective zone.

Why does SU's zone work?
1. "Being long"- Thats the one word everyone uses to describe SU's zone. The players are "long". What does that mean? It means the players they have can use their armspan to cover more than their height should allow them to. Hakim Warrick is long, Kueth Duany is long, Carmelo Anthony is long. They cover more court with their arms and can trap players in corners and contest jumpshots even if they are a step or two away from the shooter. When it looks like there is an open look in the zone, one step and jump can make that open shot much difficult
2. Discipline- Every player in the SU zone has assigned responsibilties. Once one person decides to do his own thing the whole zone breaks down. Just look at if a player goes for a steal. In the man to man if that happens you just keep switching until the player gets back in the play. In a zone, there is a a huge gap that cant be overcome. The epitome of zone discipline is Craig Forth. He gets hammered by fans sometimes, but you'll never see Forth out of position in the zone pre-shot. When's the last time someone threw an alley-oop on the Orange? Thats because of Forth. He takes away the rim and snuffs out backscreens. The easiest play to get on an undisciplined zone is the alley-oop. Lets not forget the other players. The forwards must challenge shooters on the wings and the guards cant run out as far because if there is an offensive rebound they dont get back in defensive position. SU has unbelievable discipline in the zone.
3. Anticipation- This is the one many people overlook. Not only do the guards have to anticipate, but the forwards do too. Josh Pace and Gerry Macnamara are great anticipators. The know where the ball is going and get there before the pass is completed. The forwards need to see that the ball is being reversed and get ready for the extra pass. Also the forwards and guards must be on the same page to trap in corners and in the wing spot and then the opposite guard and forward must drop. This is all basketball sense and SU has impressive instinct.

How do you beat it?

1.Time-Well there are many schools of thought. But first and foremost you need time to prepare. The Big East Teams have time during the season because they usually have time to prepare. To go into a zone and play it without seeing it all season is very difficult Ask John Lucas. Ask the Kansas guards. It not easy.
2- Big Men- Crash the glass and crash the glass hard. The zone doesnt have specific box out assignments If your guards rebound well they can outnumber the rebounders underneath- Example- Kansas in the 2001 tourney. They totally dominated SU on the glass and won in a rout.
3- All purpose man- If you have a guy that score in the mid range game and pass the ball well you already have the zone halfway beat. If you put that guy at the foul line he can make the 15 ft jump shot, pass it out for an open jumpshot, or force the SU center to step up and dump the pass down low before the forwards collapse. Example- Richard Hamilton used to be proficient at this and breaking down the SU zone from the inside .
4- Shoot, Shoot, and shoot- This seems to be the theory of most teams and mostly it doesnt work. The one way it does work is if you make enough shots to force SU out of the zone. Two teams that were proficient at hitting the 3 and hurting SU was Kentucky in 96 and Alabama last year.

The Syracuse Zone may be the greatest equalizer in college. Teams have never seen it and have trouble against it. Will the zone ever take off across the country? I doubt it. It takes a discipline that many young players dont have and a willingness to put your ego on the shelf. More teams use zone now, but none of them play it like SU.
To add,
I think man to man is actually easier to coach and that is why so many COACHES utilize it. Its the coaches who are lazy not the players.
Breaking it: Michigan state beat SU to move to the final four by hitting an outrageous number of 3's. However beating SU this way you have to make them from the NBA line because SU will guard you out there.
A forward who can bounce pass in the paint. Like Chevy Troutman.
The center is very important if he is stupid (OVCINA)and fails to stay home. I have commented before about Forths ability to seal the baseline from penetration by the forwards. The bottom of the lane is generally a weakness in the zone that many teams give up on because of his size.
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