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February 22, 2014

Calipari warming to zone as 'changeup' defense

Even Jim Boeheim wants to see Kentucky play more zone.

The Syracuse coach has watched the Wildcats play his famous brand of defense, talked it over with coach John Calipari, and concluded:

"You should play more zone," Calipari recalled Boeheim telling him.

Calipari's done more of that than ever before this season. The Wildcats have played multiple possessions of zone in five of the past six games and practice it every day.

"Which, you know, is not something I've done in the past," Calipari said.
But it's worked.

In 39 possessions playing zone defense the past six games, Kentucky allowed just 30 points, a 0.77 points-per-possession mark that stands well below UK's season average (0.98).

The key to that success?

"Our length," guard James Young said. "And we just go harder when we're in the zone. Because you only have to guard one area."

Calipari cited guards Aaron Harrison -- "The Cat," Calipari nicknamed him, because of his reflexes and penchant for poking at passes -- and Jarrod Polson as being effective perimeter defenders in the zone.

He leaned on Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy -- a Boeheim disciple -- to break down the inner workings of the zone and provide drills.

From that, Calipari has created a defense that does two things drastically different than Kentucky's normal style: turnovers and the type of shots allowed.

Kentucky's defense created 10 turnovers in those 39 possessions, a 25.6 percent rate that's well above UK's paltry season average of 16.1 percent.

And the Cats allow more outside shots than inside shots. To date, only eight of opponents' 33 field goal attempts against the zone have come at or around the basket. UK guards' ineffectiveness at keeping drives in front of them is largely masked.

Conversely, opponents have attempted a 3-pointer on 48 percent of their field goal attempts, compared to just 30 percent for the season as a whole.

That's what makes it dangerous, Calipari said, and is a major reason why he still prefers man-to-man defense, on the whole whole.

"When you play zone, you know they're always going to be able to get off a three at any point," Calipari said. "Now, if they're making them, you lose. … But when you're playing man and switching, it means they're taking a contested shot."

Calipari has used the zone intermittently, playing it for a few possessions in a row here and there before going back to a man defense. The amount he's used it has fluctuated, from four possessions against Florida to 10 against Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

That's part of what makes it effective.

"It's a good changeup," Calipari said.

And one that's complementary to UK's normal style.

"We think we can do both, man and zone," Young said. "When we feel like we're breaking down a little bit, we'll probably go zone. Or if we feel like they're a good-shooting team, we'll probably go man."

Calipari's admitted he's struggled with sticking to the zone if a team makes a few baskets in a row, as Ole Miss did on Tuesday.

But, as Boeheim reminded him, teams make multiple shots in a row against his man defense, too.

So Calipari wants to keep the flexibility that having both zone and man at the ready allowed him.

And he's prepared to do more, if the situation calls for it.

"If there was a game that I thought we'd have to play zone to win the game," Calipari said, "I'd do it."

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