UK Men's Basketball

Zone defenses teaching Cats to be patient

For Kentucky players, man-to-man defense has gone the way of the hook shot, the three-second violation and short shorts.

It might as well be a relic of an earlier basketball age as opponent after opponent plays a zone against the Cats this season. After Alabama used a zone (and another staple of UK opponents: milk-the-clock patience on offense) to hang in there against Kentucky on Tuesday, the players sounded resigned to the idea that little will change going forward.

"Nah, I don't think we're going to see man (defense) that much," point guard John Wall said. "You see, (Alabama) went man for a split second. But I don't think they meant to. They ran right back (to zone)."

Echoing earlier opposing coaches, Anthony Grant said Alabama's plan put the highest priority on limiting Kentucky's scoring opportunities around the basket and keeping the Cats out of transition. Hence a zone defense in hopes of inducing perimeter shots from UK and a patient offense to limit turnovers that fuel fast-break opportunities for the Cats.

"How everybody plays us," UK Coach John Calipari said after the 66-55 victory over Alabama. "If we make shots, we win by 20."

Kentucky made only three of 16 three-point shots in losing at South Carolina. Two-for-14 three-point accuracy made for nip-and-tuck games against Louisville and Georgia.

Earlier this year, Calipari said only hubris could lead a coach to play straight-up man-to-man against Kentucky. Whether it's hubris or ego or simply a proven winner going with what he knows best, Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl has had the Vols playing almost exclusively man-to-man going into Saturday's game at Kentucky.

UK players did not sound hopeful of facing man-to-man the rest of the season.

"I think we will," Eric Bledsoe said before quickly adding, "I don't think too much, though."

At 23-1 overall and 8-1 in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky has proved it can handle the zone defenses. To borrow a favorite phrase from the opposing coaches' post-game news conferences, it can be a matter of picking your poison. Running with Kentucky amounts to basketball suicide.

"That'd be the greatest day for me," Wall said. "I think that'd be great. That would play into our hands."

But, Wall acknowledged, a zone defense and patient offense serve as a blueprint against the Big Blue.

"Yeah, people don't want us to get up and down," he said. "They're going to try to go half-court."

To counter that familiar strategy, UK must play good defense and try to maximize the chances to get the ball to low-post anchor DeMarcus Cousins.

"What you're finding out is, there's a bunch of good coaches in this league," Calipari said. "(Grant) gave his team a chance to win, wouldn't you say? On the road. In Lexington, Kentucky. They kept the game in the 60s. We wanted it in the 80s."

The game ended in the 60s because Kentucky shot poorly from the perimeter and Cousins took only eight shots (he'd taken 10 or more in all but one SEC game, and all but six games this season).

Perhaps reflecting the effect of zones, Kentucky's scoring has dipped slightly in SEC play (from 82.8 points per non-conference game to 79.7 points), and the average number of three-point attempts has risen from 16.3 in non-conference to 18.4.

Calipari embraced how the Cats beat Alabama in a game that required patience and decision-making. After committing 16 turnovers in the game's first 29 minutes, UK had none thereafter.

"We were grinding it out at times, which we have to learn to do," Calipari said.

When a reporter noted that opponents paid Kentucky a compliment by using so much zone defense, Wall agreed.

"Yeah, that's a compliment," he said. "But that's a smart way for them (to play). They know it's the best way for them to beat us."

Alas, it's not much fun.

"Because our guards like to get out and run," Bledsoe said, "and just run all game."

Added Wall: "It's not as much fun, but it's making me mature. It's making me become a better point guard."

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