If Syracuse zone awaits, Kentucky plans to be ready

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 2, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

A zone defense helped Georgia limit Kentucky to a season-low 57 points in January. In Thursday's rematch, UK equaled the most three-point baskets in John Calipari's three seasons as coach and breezed to a 30-point victory.

What better proof of UK's improvement when facing zone defenses? That improvement might come in handy in the upcoming NCAA Tournament should the Cats play Syracuse and the Orange's signature 2-3 zone.

"We zoned them in game one and held them to under 60 points," Georgia Coach Mark Fox said after game two. "And they were prepared for it this time. ... They were prepared for our zone and then shot the ball on us and made it even less effective."

Kentucky made 15 three-pointers, which equaled the Calipari-era high set against East Tennessee State in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

In the 2012 NCAA Tournament, many college basketball fans relish the thought of a Kentucky-Syracuse matchup. Darius Miller, who led the way with 5-for-9 three-point shooting against Georgia on Senior Night, cautioned against the assumption of Kentucky handling a Syracuse zone with similar ease.

"I feel they have a different type of zone," he said. "I mean, that's what they do. They're so long. They're so athletic. And their zone is so impressive, in my opinion. I mean, that's not a regular zone."

Syracuse ranks 14th nationally in field-goal defense with opponents shooting 38.6 percent. Syracuse opponents have made 31.1 percent of their three-point attempts. The Orange rank second — to UK — in blocks (7.2 per game, on average).

"We'll have to get a game plan for it, which I know Coach Cal will," Miller said of a potential game against the Syracuse zone. "He always does. I think it'd be a good matchup. It'd be a fun game to be part of."

Much trial and error has and will come before such a highly anticipated game. Calipari recently suggested that this Kentucky team had spent more practice time with zone defenses and offenses than all his previous 19 college teams combined.

Miller confirmed the added attention to practice against zones.

"We've definitely worked on it a lot more," he said. "I think you can tell how comfortable we are with it. We even played a little zone (against Georgia), which I don't think I've ever done under Coach Cal."

Shooting well (UK was 15-for-27 from beyond the arc against Georgia) destroys any defense.

Freshman Kyle Wiltjer, who made three of four three-point attempts, said the Cats have grown accustomed to facing zones.

"I don't think people think they can guard us in man-to-man," he said. "So that's why we've seen a lot of zone. So I think that's why Coach Cal wanted to work on it because we've seen so much of it. We just want to be ready for anything."

Beyond making shots, Miller and Wiltjer noted the key to being effective against zones rests with attacking gaps between defenders.

"Coach Cal really emphasizes attacking gaps," Wiltjer said. With Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Miller, UK has plenty of players to exploit the gaps.

"A lot of guys who can dribble the ball and get to the rim ... ," Miller said. "So we create problems.

"We don't want to be just stagnant when teams play zone and just stand around and pass it around."

Kentucky first faced an extended period of zone defense in the November game against Old Dominion. UK won, but it wasn't easy. Miller, the greybeard who's seen it all, came off the bench to steer the Cats to victory. He scored 13 points and handed out a team-high five assists.

"We hadn't really worked on playing against a zone a lot," Miller said. "That was really the first time we'd seen a zone this season. We kind of struggled.

"After we worked on it, the guys became really comfortable with it. No one panicked. Now we know exactly what to do. We execute almost to perfection."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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