John Calipari has spent every year at Kentucky playing a tight man-to-man defense. It has been a staple of Calipari's coaching. Many times before this year he's been asked about playing a zone, but he's mostly shrugged those questions off. Last year, we saw a a few possessions of zone defense, and he gave it more lip service than he ever has up until now, but it was never a serious part of Kentucky's defensive strategy.
It is now.
It feels a little weird to say it, but Calipari decided to give the zone more than one or two possessions in three or four games, and has gone to it repeatedly this season, although only for a possession or two until the last six games, when the zone has made increasingly assertive appearances.
Against Ole Miss on Tuesday, Calipari played a fair number, perhaps 20% of possessions in the zone, and it was markedly better than I have ever seen it. It was good a couple of times against the Florida Gators, but it was downright threatening against Ole Miss, and suddenly, the Wildcats have found a new wrinkle in what has been a very predictable defensive game plan.
Not so any more. Calipari has unquestionably decided to make the zone a part of his defensive strategy going forward, and he is serious enough about it that he has solicited the advice of former Jim Boeheim assistant and Eastern Michigan coach, Rob Murphy. From an article at CoachCal.com:
"Well, Rob at Eastern Michigan was the one who came in and really, you know, gave me the breakdowns and the drill work because you can’t just do – you’ve got to break it down, you’ve got to do it, you’ve gotta give them an idea what they have to do and then I would call him," Calipari said.
So Calipari appears to be serious about the zone, and making it not only an occasional switch-up, but also an effective defensive tool. Coach Cal has placed a wrinkle in how Kentucky runs the zone, making more like a man-to-man at the top:
"It’s more like a tandem, like one guy up top and a guy under him," [James] Young said. "When they get it toward the corner or anything, then we go back to our normal 2-3 zone. It’s just to throw the offense off."
The article goes on to point out that Aaron Harrison has been extraordinary in the zone, and I noticed on Tuesday that he was the most aggressive from his position on the left wing of the defense. The zone led to a couple of steals, something Kentucky has been amongst the worst in Division I at this season.
Of course, no defense stops the opponent every time, and Tony Barbee, Calipari's former player and friend, reminded him of that:
"(Auburn head coach) Tony Barbee said this to me: ‘You’re good in zone, Coach, but when you switch everything (in man-to-man), it’s a one-on-one game. There is nothing else we can do,’ " Calipari said. "When you play zone, you know they’re always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point, now if they’re making them, you lose."
I don't think Kentucky is going to become Syracuse, but being multiple on defense, in my view, will help Kentucky confuse their foe and force them to think on their feet, as long as they play the defense properly and aggressively. The players seem to like it, and it certainly takes some of the effort out of defense. Calibrating a zone defense to operate mainly when the most dangerous shooters aren't in the game provides the kind of defensive change that can force any team to alter their substitution pattern.
I can't prove this, but I think playing some zone also makes Kentucky better at facing it. When you play a defense often enough, you know where your weaknesses are, and therefore, you have a good idea of where those same weaknesses will be for an opponent. It's one thing to be told to get the ball into the middle of the zone, but it's another when you are playing it and you see how the ball moves when that happens.
So vive la zone at Kentucky, at least for short stretches and as a change up. It's never going to replace a well-run man-to-man, but then again, it doesn't have to.