Miami Hurricanes just one example of the ACC's newfound love for zone defense

lkeeley@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

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Garrius Adams #25, left, of the Miami Hurricanes, Jerami Grant #3 of the Syracuse Orange and Tonye Jekiri #23 of the Miami Hurricanes battle for a loose ball during the second half of their game at the Carrier Dome on January 4, 2014 in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeated Miami 49-44.

RICH BARNES — Getty

  • Happy zone

    Nobody plays as much zone as Syracuse (94 percent of opponents’ possessions), but more ACC teams are using it more often:

    Change from
    Team Zone % last year
    Syracuse94 +1 percent
    Miami54 +51 percent
    Notre Dame25 +5 percent
    Pittsburgh21 +10 percent
    Wake Forest16 +12 percent
    Virginia Tech12 -7 percent
    North Carolina10 +5 percent
    Georgia Tech9 +7 percent
    N.C. State9 +3 percent
    Florida State8 +7 percent
    Boston College6 -2 percent
    Maryland4 + 1 percent
    Clemson4 +1 percent
    Duke1 same
    Virginia< 1 same

    Source: Synergy Sports

— It’s been a buzzword this season in the ACC: zone.

As in, zone defense. Most often, it’s in reference to Syracuse’s style of play, but it’s not just the Orange who have brought the zone to the league.

“There are just more people playing zone,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And if they don’t do it all the time, they at least can do it for significant parts of the game.”

One of the more recent zone converts is Miami, Duke’s next opponent. The Hurricanes (10-7, 2-3) will host the No. 18 Blue Devils (14-4, 3-2) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

According to data from Synergy Sports Technology, Miami has played zone defense on 54 percent of its possessions this season compared with 3 percent last season.

Last year, Larranaga estimated that his ACC champions played against a zone during regular-season conference play for 20 minutes – total, for all 18 games. This year, 11 of the 15 teams are going zone more often than last year, and just two (Virginia Tech and Boston College) are using it less frequently.

The zone trend extends beyond just the ACC. Last season, Duke played 8.6 percent of its total possessions against a zone. This season, it’s up to 24.3 percent.

“In the nonconference schedule, we faced more zone in that period of time probably than in any other full season since I’ve coached here,” said Krzyzewski, who began at Duke in 1980.

The Hurricanes’ change is a worthy case study. After losing five starters from last season’s ACC championship squad (the Hurricanes announced their national arrival with a Jan. 23, 90-63 thumping of then-No. 1 Duke), Larranaga completely retooled on offense and defense.

“Well the first thing is when we added Syracuse, and I knew we were going to be adding Louisville, I gave my staff the project of investigating zone defense, first from an offensive standpoint of how we would attack those teams, and second, is it something we should consider adding to our defensive package,” Larranaga said. “And we had already played some 2-3 zone in the past, but very, very sparingly.

“We decided to implement both a 2-3 zone and a 1-2-2 zone. When our man-to-man defense was not as good as it has been in the past, we decided to try to zone a little bit more. We had a little bit more success with it. Our guys developed a little more confidence in it, and we’ve been playing it better and better.”

The rule changes designed to eliminate hand checks and reduce charges have made it tougher for teams to defend, including Miami. The turning point for the Hurricanes came just before the beginning of conference play in earnest (Miami lost in overtime to Virginia Tech in the league’s Dec. 8 opener).

After a two-hour film session with former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine, the Hurricanes went to Syracuse and nearly upset the No. 2 Orange, falling 49-44. Syracuse shot 36.2 percent against Miami’s matchup zone in a slow, plodding game with just three fastbreak points – just how Larranaga wanted it.

The Hurricanes rank last out of all 351 Division I teams in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo, averaging 59.1 possessions per game. Last season, Miami aimed to score at least 75 points per game. This season, the fewer shots the offensively challenged Hurricanes are forced to take, the better.

“We’re not a high-octane offensive team,” said Larranga. “We felt like in order to compete in the ACC at this high level, we had to give ourselves a chance by being very patient offensively, sharing the ball on offense and trying to create a defense that would force the other team to be patient as well.

“So, it’s a combination of we’re being patient, but also our opponents taking a lot of time trying to score against our defense.”

Since the close call at Syracuse, the Hurricanes are 2-1, with wins against North Carolina and Georgia Tech and a loss to Florida State.

The matchup zone is simple enough to describe. It’s a zone with man principles – when an opponent is in a defender’s zone, he guards him like it’s man-to-man. He doesn’t leave his zone, so, for example, if a team runs a pick-and-roll, the defense wouldn’t switch and send the perimeter defender toward the basket. The zone leads to more help defense as well.

Miami isn’t alone in its slow-it-down style. Four other ACC teams rank 300 or lower in adjusted tempo – Boston College, Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia. Pittsburgh ranks 295th. Save for the inexperienced Hurricanes and the surprisingly bad Eagles, those are the teams atop the ACC standings.

Duke could not be more different – the Blue Devils play 1 percent of their opponents’ possessions in a zone and rank third in the ACC with an average of 69.1 possessions per game. So the question for Wednesday night: is it easier to speed up a slow team or slow down a fast team?

“Well, it basically comes down to, who is better at what you do?” Larranaga said. “And whichever team is more effective, the score will reflect that.”

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