Wednesday, 12 August 2015

In The Zone

Started this blog with every intention of primarily focusing on offense – my favorite aspect of the game. But for those who know my tendencies as a coach, they know while I like offense, people also know that when it comes to defense….I’m in the zone.

I guess what else would you expect from a Syracuse University grad?!?

When I first started coaching I wanted to be a man 2 man coach. Aggressive, denying the pass, in your face, mug you kind of defense. But quickly, I soon saw the value of playing zone. Here are 4 reasons why I love playing zone.

1. The size and quickness of the players can effectively take away the open 3-point shot.
2. Teams spend most of the season working on their man-to-man offense.
3. It is easy for a team that plays zone to know what its opponent will do against them. There are far more man-to-man offenses to prepare for than zone offenses.
4. The zone can dictate the tempo, not to mention momentum, of the game.

Numbers 2 and 3 are key elements. I’ve noticed that very few teams will run plays against our zone. They just pass it around hoping to get a good shot. And in many cases, when teams don’t have plays to run against our zone, what inevitably happens they get frustrated and their frustration becomes visible. You see teams start bickering and arguing amongst themselves.  They get exasperated with one another.  I absolutely love that element of the game….playing the type of defense that gets inside the head of an opponent. I love this psychology part of the game. Getting into the minds of opponents.

While my teams don’t have the length of Syracuse there are many elements that about how Syracuse plays zone that I look to emulate with Team Hurricane.  Here are some basic thoughts and notes:

1.     Contrary to popular belief, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is not a “passive defense” by any means. It’s not a defense that Jim Boeheim uses to mask his team’s weaknesses, rather it’s a defense he uses to utilize his team’s length and athleticism. For my team the zone best utilizes our quickness and athleticism, in particular our guards. We have quick, pit bull guards who can be very disruptive. Coach Kent Tacklyn is big on pressure and has our guards pressure the ball, he wants to disrupt the ballhandler as they cross halfcourt. As a result, we play an extended zone. Not passive in any shape or form.
2.     There are a multitude of traps that Syracuse can run out of the zone but it is not generally known for forcing a lot of turnovers. Instead the zone holds the opposition to a low shooting percentage by forcing them into uncomfortable shots altered by the length and athleticism of its defenders.
3.     "It's not the way it works," Boeheim says, "it's the way these guys play it. You can't simulate that. It's like Louisville's pressure. You can't simulate that. You can practice it all you want, but it's not the same.”
4.     As University of Cincinatti coach Mick Cronin says, “You shoot jumpers, that’s what they want. You’ve got to be able to score from 15 feet in. If you can’t, you’re not going to beat them.  It’s like this: If you’re constantly putting from four to six feet, and I’m putting from 15 to 20, you’re going to beat me, eventually.’’
5.     The way Boeheim coaches the 2-3 makes it even more impenetrable. “He concedes the baseline. The back three in the zone allow foes five feet out from the baseline. If you try to exploit that gap by passing to it, they trap you with two monsters. If they’re late getting there, they’ll block the shot. (Mick Cronin).
6.     With the baseline ignored and the zone extended, good shots become hard to find. That’s when the psychology of the zone kicks in. It takes so much effort, constantly cutting inside and back out, just to get a shot. If you miss it, that’s where it really affects you psychologically.’’ (Mick Cronin).
7.     What people don't talk about is the quickness, the speed that allows Syracuse to recover and to close a gap that for a split second looks open. This quickness plays to my team’s strength as well. It’s the players' speed that is deceptively critical. As Jim Boeheim’s right hand man Mike Hopkins says, “It's like when Miami started putting safeties as linebackers and defensive ends," he said. "It just looks like speed so it's like, 'Oh, that's open. Uh-oh, no it's not."
8.     “Everybody’s talking about the 2-3 zone. That’s not a 2-3 zone. The 2-3 zone has been with us since the dawn of time. It’s the way it slides and moves out there, like a damn amoeba. “The only time it’s a 2-3 zone is when they’re waiting for you to bring the ball to it. Then, it becomes something else.” (John Thompson, Jr., Georgetown University)

An excerpt from The Triangle by Brett Koremonos encapsulates why I love Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and playing zone for my team:

It almost looks choreographed. You can see two men slide, and then two men slide over behind them, and, anytime a slice of daylight appears, there’s an arm and a hand there to block it. The traps come suddenly, and from all angles, and with startling speed. You never get two identical looks from the zone on successive possessions. It is a simple defense played within a universe of creative variations.

And they play it cleanly; they had only 11 team fouls against Marquette, and only 17 against Indiana. To watch the five men move almost as one, and to see the gaps disappear as quickly as they do, is to see that Thompson’s basic point is correct. This is only a 2-3 zone when it is completely at rest. In full cry, it is, quote, “something else.”

The movements are so precise, and the results so thorough, that the Syracuse zone has unique effects on the game completely missing from any other team that plays this most basic of defenses. Usually, teams facing a zone play patiently, and the game slows to a crawl. However, teams facing the Syracuse zone seem to lose their minds, cranking up the tempo to a preposterous pace. Sooner or later, you just look desperate, which means you feel desperate, which means you are.”

And there you have it, why I love to play zone. For me personally, as I mentioned earlier, it plays into the psychology of the game. When played well, it can get into your opponents head. And that, many will say, is half the battle in playing winning basketball.

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