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The Zone Option

I just had an interesting phone conversation with my good friend James (handle: jimmer) about the hoops team and we had an insight that we haven't touched on enough here on the blog. Texas is playing one helluva mean zone these days. It's outright Boeheim-esque, to be honest, and it's one of the reasons we're absolutely murdering our opponents.

There's a lot to be said about this, so let's start from the beginning. For one thing, it should be noted that this has been a Christmas present or sorts for Rick "Man To Man" Barnes. The Texas head coach has always featured aggressive, Big 12-style, man to man defense, utilizing Texas depth to swarm opponents to death by chasing them around the court and subbing in player after player. It wasn't long ago that we'd stick Royal Ivey on our opponent's best scorer and tirelessly chase them around the court.

The Horns opened the season in that very same man to man scheme. But something happened in December that changed the entire outlook for Texas on defense. Actually, three things happened. First, J.J. Reddick made our man defense look silly as he easily got open on screens and cuts to torch us for 70 points. Then Tennessee came to Austin and, coached by Bruce Pearl, who knows how to run a half court offense, we were back cut and passed to death as the Vols carved up our defense.

Finally, and most importantly, we also learned very quickly that Texas is NOT a deep team. It's a six man show, maybe seven if you count Williams. With the Buckman injury and the horrific play from our bench, there was no choice for Barnes but to play the starters for nearly 40 minutes a game. You just can't sustain man to man defense without more subbing, and Rick was forced to try out a zone.

What we've discovered is that this team, in particular, is really, really well suited to zone defense. Gibson is a very long and athletic defender that can slide around the perimeter to harass the guards. Tucker is equally athletic. And Buckman and Aldridge absolutely control the paint and alter shot after shot. What you've got is a zone that is looking a lot like the best Syracuse zones.

I've never loved our zone defense in previous years. We were too slow to move to the ball and it always looked like it was an afterthought, something we did because our man defense wasn't working well. This year, though, it's as active and ferocious a zone as I've seen in some time. And it's absolutely killing our opponents. Rick Barnes may not have started the year planning the team defense this way, but the circumstances that brought it to bear have turned out to be quite the blessing. Teams are finding it very difficult to get points in the paint, and outside shots do not go uncontested. College kids struggle to beat a tough zone, and we're playing one awfully tough zone.

My doubts about the Horns this season are quickly disappearing. It remains to be seen how we'll play against better offensive teams (the Big 12 is not known for offensive powerhouses), but no one's playing any better than we are right now. Villanova, an outstanding team that can put up some points, looked miserable dealing with our zone. Wiggins is right; 16-0 in conference is not out of reach.