Kentucky and Duke, arguably the bluest of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, are playing noticeably more zone defense this season. That suggests that zone defense has gained greater acceptance as a strategy. It seems that playing zone defense might even be … trendy?
Don’t say that to Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who for years has seemed like a lone voice in the basketball wilderness promoting zone defense. His teams are synonymous with zone defense. Even with the more widespread use of zone defenses this season, he’s not ready to accept the idea that his coaching colleagues have relaxed their allegiance to man-to-man.
“I think those coaches do that out of desperation,” he said of the zone defenses we see. “They don’t ever think this is a way to win.”
Zone is no better than a fallback option at best, something to discard as soon as players become proficient at man-to-man defense.
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As Boeheim saw it, this would be true for his friend and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils played zone from opening tip to final buzzer against Michigan State in the game before UK played Kansas. It was much the same for Duke against Florida.
Still, Boeheim said, “It wouldn’t be Duke’s (defense) if he didn’t have to go to it.”
As for Kentucky, at a recent meeting of the Lexington Rotary Club, John Calipari stated two reservations about playing zone.
1) NBA teams do not play zone, so it’s irrelevant, at best, in terms of preparation for the pros. It might even stunt a player’s development as a defender. The NBA rule about defensive three seconds makes it, for all practical purposes, impossible for teams to play zone.
To which Boeheim said, “I have never seen a perimeter player — a forward or a guard — chosen in a NBA Draft because of his defense. Not one. Not one. They are chosen because of their offense.”
And with its dependence on zone defense, Syracuse has had a player selected in the first round of nine of the last 10 NBA drafts. Michael Carter-Williams, taken with the 11th pick in 2013, has made his mark as an NBA defender.
“So that’s a myth,” Boeheim said of zones hindering a player’s chances of playing in the NBA. “We deal with that in recruiting all the time.”
2) It’s more difficult to hold an individual player responsible for a defensive breakdown in a zone.
“That’s because he doesn’t know zone defense,” Boeheim said of Calipari’s reasoning. “If you know zone defense, trust me, you’ll see a guy get dragged out of the game when we play because he didn’t cover his position. If you know it and you play it, you know who’s responsible.”
This is not to suggest that Kentucky should scrap its man-to-man defense and go zone full time. Calipari, a Hall of Fame coach, has enjoyed great success with man-to-man. He says his team has played more zone this season than in his previous eight seasons as UK coach combined. He said he will keep zone as a fallback option in case of, say, foul trouble or an impossible-to-deal-with matchup.
When called upon to play zone this season, Kentucky players have done so effectively. This has not surprised Boeheim.
“From what I’ve seen, they’re pretty long,” he said with a chuckle. “They look long and athletic. And those (kind of) guys are good in zones.
“That’s the bottom line.”
UK Athletics wants students at home basketball games. Students want the basketball team to succeed.
The empty seats — sometimes several rows — in the student sections for UK home games this season raised the question about whether there was still a mutual attraction.
When asked if UK considered student attendance important, Director of Strategic Communication Guy Ramsey was emphatic.
“Oh, hugely important …,” he said. “When it’s done right, students are the heartbeat of a crowd. I think we found that at football. We find that at basketball for sure. It’s just an important part of the college experience. They have a passion that’s sort of unmatched, and we want to have that.”
Ben Childress, the student body president, said that students care.
“I’d say there definitely is a strong connection,” he said. “I still think that we very much have a basketball/athletics culture at our university.”
Childress called UK basketball one of the “key trademarks” of the school. He acknowledged that students had not gone to home games in great numbers. But, he said, “they’re still diehard fans.”
To former UK players and teammates Erik Daniels and Gerald Fitch. They were among 35 former and current athletes who participated in UK’s commencement ceremony Friday.
Daniels and Fitch, who played for UK from 2000-01 through 2003-04, took advantage of the athletic department’s lifetime scholarship program.
Daniels, who scored 1,053 points for UK, finished work on a degree in communications. He said he hoped the degree sends a message to his three children.
“That once you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” he said. He added that he hoped the degree would inspire his children to do well in school.
After playing for UK, Daniels competed in such countries as Italy, Spain, Croatia, Israel, Ukraine, Turkey, Argentina and China.
“I’m well traveled,” he said with a deadpan tone of voice.
Daniels, who coaches the girls’ junior varsity team at Bryan Station High School, hopes to someday coach in the college ranks. A college degree is a requirement.
His immediate plans upon becoming a college graduate? “Take a couple weeks off and rest for a bit,” he said. “I’ve been going (academically) for a whole year strong.”
Fitch, who scored 1,391 points for Kentucky, earned a degree in psychology. He, too, aspires to become a coach. His basketball experience includes playing in the NBA, plus at least 12 foreign countries.
“I think I’ll be a pretty good coach,” he said. “I think I’ll be one of the best based on my experience.”
When asked to compare the satisfaction of walking in cap and gown to receive a degree with on-court accomplishments, Fitch said that the feelings were similar. Athletically and academically, he had to overcome obstacles, some self-inflicted.
“I was disappointed in some of the decisions I made back in the day,” he said. “Now, I’m just proud. It’s a proud, proud feeling, I must say.”
While SEC basketball has generated a buzz nationally, the league has had modest success against ranked opponents so far this season.
Going into this weekend, the SEC had a 7-9 record against teams ranked in The Associated Press’ top 25. The record was 1-5 against top-10 teams.
Texas A&M led the way with a 2-0 record. The Aggies had the only victory against a top-10 team: 75-59 over then No. 10 Southern Cal.
The SEC will have chances for two more victories against ranked teams on Sunday. No. 20 Tennessee plays host to No. 7 North Carolina and Vanderbilt plays at No. 5 Arizona State.
But compared to last season, the SEC has improved noticeably. Against ranked opponents in the pre-conference portion of last season, the SEC had a 4-16 record. The record was 1-5 against opponents ranked in the top 10.
With the SEC schedule beginning on Dec. 30, the league noted that it had five teams with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 25 nationally last week, and eight teams mentioned in the AP poll: 8. UK, 9. Texas A&M, 20. Tennessee, 22. Florida and four other teams receiving votes (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia).
Not a word
The game against Monmouth last weekend served as a reminder that outside the Big Blue Nation there exists a world that is largely indifferent to Kentucky basketball.
There was not a word in the New York Times last Saturday or Sunday about the UK-Monmouth game, which was played Saturday afternoon in Madison Square Garden.
This was not a snub. The Times typically passes on game coverage until college basketball nears the playoffs, er, the NCAA Tournament.
To Thad Jaracz. He turned 71 on Friday. … To Deron Feldhaus. He turned 49 on Saturday. … To Adam Chiles. He turned 35 on Saturday. … To Kelenna Azubuike. He turned 34 on Saturday. … To Allen Edwards. He turned 42 on Saturday. … To Matthew Mitchell. The UK women’s coach turned 47 on Saturday. … To former Vanderbilt coach Jan van Breda Kolff. He turned 66 on Saturday. … To Wendell Lyons. He turns 65 on Sunday (today). … To former Arkansas coach Stan Heath. He turns 53 on Sunday (today). … To Myron Anthony. He turns 40 on Monday. … To Roger Harden. He turns 54 on Tuesday. … To De’Aaron Fox. He turns 20 on Wednesday. … To Jeff Brassow. He turns 47 on Wednesday.