A (Not So) Quick Note on the Zone Defense

Since I write a blog about Maryland basketball, it is hard to get excited about events that do not include the Terps. Nevertheless, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is the best sports weekend of the year and I enthusiastically gave the goings on their due attention.

I have a long personal history with the Tournament. I’ve been to Las Vegas eight times during the first weekend. I was in the Mandalay sports book in 2003 when Drew Nicholas hit The Shot. If you ever wanted to see ten twentysomethings piling on top of each other in a sportsbook, that would have been your chance. My buddy Danny’s father was there and to this day claims it was his favorite moment ever as a sports fan. A die hard New Yorker, Danny’s dad has lived through some of the greatest sports moments of the 20th Century, yet that shot and our reaction to it, remains his favorite.

(Interestingly enough, the guy who played Kenny Bania on Seinfeld was there that day rooting for UNCW. At one point, standing right next him, I yelled “Bania is killing me!”. He walked away.)

So, whether the Terrapins make the field or not, the NCAA Tournament is still special. After all, while my Vegas tradition has waned, I still have the myriad pools and other exotic betting opportunities that can only be found during March Madness.

But I digress.

So it was with this excitement that I sat down to watch the opening round game for one of my predicted great eight teams: Clemson. As the Tigers slowly disintegrated on Friday night; it became apparent that the neither Coach Oliver Purnell (a Lefty Driesell disciple, by the way) nor his players had any answers for Villanova’s 2-3 zone defense. I had an epiphany.

The zone defense is an equalizer. It forces teams out of their comfort zone (pun intended) and can negate individual matchups that a more talented team would exploit in a more conventional man-to-man defense.

I began to wonder, why don’t more teams utilize the zone? After all, until recently the NBA made zone defenses illegal because they were too effective. Teams often couldn’t score consistently against a good zone and scoring totals suffered. Even now, the NBA only allows zones on a limited basis.

Certain coaches became known as gurus of the zone defense. Jim Boeheim and John Chaney come to mind. Both coaches almost always have been able to get their respective teams in the Big Dance during their career and have usually been able to advance beyond the expectations of their seeding. Part of the reason for their success, I think, is that too many teams play man-to-man defense and when they run into a team that plays a tough zone defense; they can’t figure out how to score against it.

This happens all the time with Maryland. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I have seen Maryland get taken down by a lesser team because they couldn’t solve the zone defense (both Temple and Syracuse have consistently gotten the better of us).

Which brings me to the ultimate question of this post? Why don’t more coaches, and specifically, Gary Williams focus more on perfecting the zone defense? Am I missing something? Is there a negative side effect that a zone causes? As far as I can tell, a pressing team, a running team, a half court team should all be able to play a zone defense without it negatively effecting the offensive end of the floor.

I’m no basketball expert, so I am sure that I am missing something, but what is so great about the man-to-man defense? How many teams that specialize in the zone get one game farther than expected in the NCAA Tournament? It seems like every year, there are two to three teams that sneak into the sweet sixteen because of their zone defense.

Could Maryland benefit from running zone? It would have to help with rebounding right?

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