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No. 6 Cincinnati vs No. 11 Texas: Defending Yancy Gates

To keep things fresh, and because every question is more entertaining to consider when its framed by Hubie Brown, let's let the retired coach and current TV announcer set the stage for the key strategic component in Friday's match up between Texas and Cincinnati:

You're Rick Barnes, you've lost your strongest-bodied interior defender, and in scouting your opponent's film you notice that a violent animal is roaming the paint, possibly Sasquatch. You're despondent, because two of your three frontcourt players are freshmen, and you have just 15 frontcourt fouls to give -- maybe less than that if Clint Chapman roars like a lion after taking a charge, provoking God-knows-what kind of response from Cincinnati's manimal.

Prior to the Big 12 Tournament, I characterized college basketball strategy "as largely a matter of getting your evaluation of trade offs right." That worked well in framing the issue with respect to defending Royce White, where I thought a proper evaluation of the trade offs made clear the optimal approach. But after spending the past several days evaluating the trade offs involved with defending Cincinnati and Yancy Gates, I've concluded that the problem is a good bit more complex, and the optimal solution somewhat less clear.

Framing the issue first: obviously, Texas wants to defend Gates effectively, but Rick Barnes also has to think about fouls, offensive rebounds, and the other scoring opportunities that a given approach creates. Under the circumstances, this really comes down to an evaluation of three approaches: (1) playing zone, (2) playing man defense, but doubling Gates aggressively with help, and (3) playing straight up man defense, with not substantially more help than normal.

A zone defense is generally an attractive strategy when you're seeking to protect your defenders from foul trouble, by directing players to defend a space on the floor and naturally lending to help defense in the paint. It can also be an effective defense because collegiate offenses often lack the balance a good zone offense requires, and even if they do, often struggle to understand how to attack it. As applied to Cincinnati, a zone defense would facilitate Texas' ability to defend Gates in the paint with two defenders, and could provide an obstacle to effective penetration by Cincy's guards.

There are, however, real risks associated with playing a zone defense against Cincinnati. First of all, Texas hasn't played much zone this season, and for good reason: like most college teams not named Syracuse, they don't play it very well. It's not just about having the right personnel -- Baylor has the players, but with Scott Drew instead of Jimmy Boeheim, its mediocre zone allowed over a point-per-possession in Big 12 play -- but also the relative value of three-point field goals, the distance to making one being just 20 feet, 9 inches, and the inability of most college defenses to rotate well and quickly enough in a zone for it to be effective in limiting the number of open threes that an opponent takes. A zone defense also hurts in terms of positioning for rebounds, and can be a hinderance to effective transition defense.

More on zone in a moment, but now is a good time to note that a defensive strategy centered on man defense with aggressive double-teaming of Gates is attractive and risky for many of the same reasons. It provides consistent, targeted help against Gates on the inside, limits fouls that might be drawn from guarding him one-on-one, and offers a defensive look that the Bearcats aren't used to seing. On the downside, like with a zone, it's not something our players are used to playing (even less so, in fac), it can disrupt positioning for defensive rebounding, and it leaves Texas vulnerable to open three-point shooters. And in addition to all that, it actually helps open up the lane and makes Texas more vulnerable to penetration.

As you may have guessed by now, I tend to think Texas should and will open up the game trying to defend Gates straight up, with a normal or moderately elevated amount of help defense. Although Cincinnati's so-so shooting percentage from outside (34%) makes it a less clear-cut evaluation, my view is that collegiate offenses tend to struggle more to consistently execute productive halfcourt offense against well-played man-to-man defense than they do hit open jump shots.

And that, ultimately, is why I'm more concerned about Texas playing sloppy transition defense than I am Yancy Gates scoring 20 points. I think Texas can live with a productive game from Gates if it does a good job preventing Cincinnati from getting easy looks from three, whether in transition or the halfcourt. Moreover, as effective as Gates can be, the one thing he doesn't do nearly as well as you'd expect is draw fouls -- as reflected in his very pedestrian 31.7 FTRate.

Given all that, I expect that a zone defense will be something that Rick Barnes retreats to if Texas finds itself in foul trouble, but that otherwise the Longhorns will do their best to defend Gates in man defense, aggressively try to deny entry passes, live with whatever he's able to score, and force Cincinnati's guards to be productive without open three pointers to shoot. As another Texas coach was fond of saying: "Dance with the one that brung ya."

What say you? Would you defend Gates by trying to deny entry passes, do your best to limit him without fouling, and focus on taking away three-point opportunities? Or do you throw a zone or double-teams at Gates and Cincinnati, and force their guards to beat you with jump shots?