UK basketball notebook: Zone can be effective for Kentucky — with time, Boeheim says

Herald-Leader staff writerMarch 1, 2014 

Like John Wooden with the 2-2-1 press or Pete Carril and the so-called Princeton offense, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim is synonymous with zone defense. "The only thing I lecture on," he said with a wry chuckle.

So who better to ask about Kentucky Coach John Calipari dipping a tentative toe into playing zone this season?

"I talk to John a couple times a year," Boeheim said last week. "His refrain is always the same: 'I really want to play zone, but if they make one (shot), I get out of it.'

"I said, 'John, man-to-man coaches are funny. They play man-to-man and the (opponent) makes two or three threes, they don't think anything about it. They make one against the zone, it's like, Holy (Toledo), we got to get out of this.'"

Calipari is one of the many man-to-man coaches. And he's a "very good" one, Boeheim said. "That's one of the strengths of his coaching. Obviously, with all the young players, you're not going to have as good a defense as you'd like to because they're still learning for a year or two."

Players can learn the fundamentals of zone defense "in a few days," Boeheim said. But as in any endeavor, the more you practice, the better you become.

"If you practice it 10 minutes a day, you're not going to have a great zone," Boeheim said.

In making an unconvincing case of his willingness to use zone as a primary defense, Calipari said the attraction is how opponents are limited in the ways to attack a zone. Therefore, a coach is not overwhelmed with planning for the opponent's strategies.

"There is some — some — truth to that," Boeheim said. "There is not as much (variation of attack options), but they're adding more and more things, the teams that play us."

Syracuse has used 2-3 zone exclusively for the past six seasons. There's a simple reason why: Success. The Orange averaged 28.3 victories the past six seasons and spent time at No. 1 this season.

In basketball's evolutionary process, opponents work to devise new strategies to beat the zone.

It's commonly believed that any zone is more passive than man-to-man. Boeheim noted that Syracuse leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in forcing turnovers. He suggested that a zone can require more exertion. All five players must be active in a coordinated way as opposed to a man-to-man, where weak-side defenders can be at ease.

Boeheim noted how zone was among Rick Pitino's tools in guiding Louisville to the national championship last season. "I thought the zone was what won them the title," he said. Billy Donovan has used some zone with Florida, the present No. 1-ranked team.

As for Kentucky, Boeheim sees a team well-equipped to play zone.

"Because they're big and they're quick and they're long," he said. "They have those kind of guys."

And it's not like Kentucky's defense, which is mostly man-to-man, has been a weakness. The Cats went into this weekend ranked No. 25 in holding opponents to 39.7 percent shooting accuracy, a statistic bolstered by a No. 7 national ranking in blocks (6.4 per game, on average).

As Boeheim likes to tell audiences at coaching clinics, a zone can be a handy alternative, if for no other reason than to give opponents something else to think about.

"It's good to have in your pocket this other weapon," he said. "But you have to understand, it's not going to be great if you don't work on it."

SEC a drag

Bracketologists and/or number crunchers agree: In terms of gravitational pull, the SEC is more Pluto than Jupiter.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN's resident "bracketologist," said No. 1 Florida could slip out of a top seed should it lose a "non-Kentucky" game.

Why? "Because the coattails of the SEC won't be strong enough to carry them," he said.

Lunardi said much the same thing when asked about Georgia. The Bulldogs figure to finish third in the SEC. Yet, an NCAA Tournament bid is not assured primarily because of non-conference losses to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple and George Washington.

Georgia has to make amends in a weak SEC. "And the league isn't good enough to make that work easy to come by," Lunardi said. "And they're not really even that close yet."

At a minimum, Georgia needs to win out in the regular season and advance to the SEC Tournament finals to rate consideration for a bid, Lunardi said.

Tennessee commands attention because of a 35-point victory over Virginia. Yet, Lunardi said, the Vols are "one bad bounce in a close game from falling completely out of the picture."

Stats maven Ken Pomeroy ranks the SEC as the sixth-best conference.

Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has the SEC as the seventh-best.

UK Coach John Calipari has bemoaned how in-league losses in the SEC seem more harmful than losses within another conference.

True enough, said Palm. "A loss in the SEC does hurt more than a loss in the Big 12 or Big Ten in general because you're losing to a worse team. Florida excepted, of course. Besides Florida and Kentucky, there's no success to credit."

So, if Kentucky loses to anyone else in the SEC (like to Arkansas on Thursday), it hurts the perception of Kentucky more than it would hurt Kansas to lose at, say, Baylor?

"Yes," Palm wrote in an email. "Exactly."

Numbers

In speaking Monday of Kentucky and a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) in the same sentence, John Calipari noted that ESPN's Basketball Power Index rated UK at No. 4 after having played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule.

A familiar saying — if you torture the data long enough, you can make it confess to anything — came to mind.

By Friday, Kentucky had slipped to No. 8.

Number cruncher Ken Pomeroy, who devotes himself to analyzing college basketball full time now that he no longer works as a weatherman in Salt Lake City, rated UK's strength of schedule at No. 33 on Friday. He ranked Kentucky at No. 18 overall.

What is the ceiling on how far Kentucky can rise in the rankings/seedings? (Full disclosure: the question was asked prior to UK's loss to Arkansas.)

"I'd guess they could move into the top 10 with convincing wins down the stretch and the top five if they won the national title," Pomeroy said in an email.

Huh? Wouldn't winning the national championship automatically move any team to the No. 1 ranking? Not necessarily.

"Well, sometimes the team that wins that national title might not be the best team in the country," Pomeroy said in an email. "For instance, Villanova probably wasn't the best team in the country in 1985. They played well at the right time, got some breaks, and if they played another tournament after that one, it's unlikely Villanova would have won the title again."

The ratings are intended as an objective view of strengths and weaknesses without interference from such factors as luck, good fortune, a timely call (or non-call) and momentum. You know, the human condition.

"It tries to factor those things out," Pomeroy said.

10 straight

Kansas clinched at least a share of its 10th straight Big 12 Conference title by beating Oklahoma on Monday. Now in his 11th season, Coach Bill Self's record contains more Big 12 titles (10) than losses inside Allen Fieldhouse (nine).

"What Kansas has done, well, it is the singular accomplishment for a program in the regular season in the history of college basketball," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said.

Self's 10 straight league titles surpassed the nine in a row won by Kentucky's Adolph Rupp (1944-1952) and UCLA's John Wooden. Only Gonzaga's Mark Few has won more consecutive conference championships (11 straight Big West titles).

The Wall Street Journal raised the question of whether 10 straight conference championships represents something greater than any national championship.

"It is much more significant an achievement than winning the tournament," Kansas booster Dana Anderson told the newspaper. "It requires consistency over an extended period of time."

Another Kansas booster, David Booth, agreed. "The format of March Madness is not designed to find the best team," he said.

Boeheim recoiled from the suggestion that a streak of conference championships represented a greater accomplishment than any NCAA Tournament title.

"No, no, no," he said. "I don't think so."

Told that The Wall Street Journal reported such a claim, Boeheim said, "They didn't quote any coaches that I'd give any credibility to. I think it's an unbelievable accomplishment to win 10 (in a row). But to win one conference championship versus compared to winning the NCAA, there's no possible comparison whatsoever."

UK Coach John Calipari has dismissed an SEC title, regular season or tournament, as incidental as best.

Having won league championships and the NCAA Tournament, Boeheim can compare.

"Oh, I love league championships," he said. "The problem is — and this is the problem — nobody cares.

"You can say whatever you want, and you can be happy about it all you want. If Kansas loses in the second or third round, their fans are not going to be happy. That's the facts."

Self agrees. In a statement released by Kansas, he said, "A national title is the best measure, obviously."

Fashion statement

Kentucky never gets tired of proclaiming its status as the greatest program in the history of college basketball. Rupp Arena public address announcer Patrick Whitmer declares that before every home game. Those words are on display in UK's on-campus practice facility (right above where John Calipari — or one of his many guest hosts — stands in the day-before-a-game news conferences).

But there are differing opinions.

In a column about Kansas basketball last week, Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal noted how James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, taught at Kansas. And how Dean Smith played for Kansas before becoming the coaching icon of North Carolina basketball.

This led Cohen to observe how a "shirt hanging in a window of a barbershop in Lawrence, Kan., describes Kansas as 'the birthplace of North Carolina basketball.'"

Given that Adolph Rupp played for the Jayhawks, can Kansas — or at least that particular barbershop — also proclaim Kansas as the birthplace of Kentucky basketball?

Happy birthday

To Marquis Teague. He turned 21 on Friday. ... To Dale Barnstable. He turns 89 on Tuesday. ... To Tayshaun Prince. He turned 34 on Friday. ... To former Louisville Coach Denny Crum. He turns 77 Sunday. ... To UK radio play-by-play man Tom Leach. He turns 53 on Monday.

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

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