John Calipari hates zone defense. He pretty much always refuses to run it, because, in his words, “when we play zone, every shot they shoot is a three and it goes in. And when they play us zone, we can't make any shots. I don't understand that, but that's how it is."
Fair point, coach, but I think you might want to revisit your opinion on it following the overtime win against the Georgia Bulldogs. With De’Aaron Fox, Mychal Mulder and Sacha Killeya-Jones out due to illness, and Bam Adebayo on the bench with early foul trouble, Calipari had to resort to his biggest fear: running a zone defense.
Kentucky was down 19-5, and Cal implemented the 2-3 zone, which worked wonders. Down the stretch of the first half, Georgia went 4-15 shooting from the field and committed 10 turnovers.
This helped Kentucky level the game at 29-29 going into halftime. It also kept Georgia star Yante Maten from scoring, as he went ice cold after the switch to zone, despite scoring Georgia’s first seven points.
"We went zone, and I've got to give credit to (assistant coach) Tony Barbee, I'm not a zone coach. I don't like zone, and for two days, we've been playing zone," Calipari said. "We had to do it because we needed to get back to being sharp against it, but, we also were playing big lineups with Wenyen (Gabriel) or Derek (Willis) at the three. So we just played zone for two days."
So the zone worked, great! But why didn’t Calipari stick with it? The Wildcats resorted back to man-to-man defense in the second half, and it didn’t go all that well. Georgia hung around and even held the lead during the second half, forcing overtime before Kentucky finally shut the door.
It’s questionable as to why Cal didn’t stick with the zone defense in the second half, but the reaction to the zone from both the players and Cal is a bag of mixed emotions.
Malik Monk seems to love the zone defense and what it does for Kentucky’s intensity.
"When we're playing aggressive all the time, he loves it," Monk said. "He says we're going to play more of it if we play it aggressive."
Isaiah Briscoe, on the other hand, prefers to take his man one-on-one.
"We like to play man. I like to play man," Briscoe said. "Just battle, man vs. man. It is what it is."
As for Cal, whether he loves or hates it (he hates it), he admitted that it is something they’ll have to use in the future.
"Look, how much have we played zone since I've been here? That game, probably, in total, is how many times I've played zone," Calipari said. "So when the screw-ups we had, well, we're not a zone team, but we're going to have to play some zone."
Calipari might hate the zone, and he might think this isn’t a zone team, but at some point he’s got to face facts and realize that this team is not good at man-to-man on-ball defense. They’ve got to do something to remedy that, and the zone is worth a shot.