Friday, December 18, 2020

How 8 minutes of zone defense helped Kansas top Texas Tech and why the Jayhawks played it to begin with

Kansas' head coach Bill Self talks to the team during in a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Kansas' head coach Bill Self talks to the team during in a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.


If you only watched the final few possessions of KU’s 58-57 victory over Texas Tech on Thursday night, you saw pretty much exactly what you were expecting — two top-15 teams battling to the end and Bill Self’s Jayhawks playing lockdown man-to-man defense.

But what you wouldn’t have known is that for about eight minutes before that, the Jayhawks had exclusively played a 2-3 zone. And for those eight minutes, the Red Raiders had next to no answer on offense.

It ended up having a major impact in KU’s third win over a top-25 foe so far this season.

Tech coach Chris Beard said after the game that when you play Kansas, it’s not always about offense, defense, X’s and O’s. Beard said there are times when players just have to make plays to beat a team like Kansas.

Texas Tech had plenty of moments when that happened on Thursday night. But very few of them came against the Kansas zone. The Red Raiders were just 4 for 12 in the final 7:50 against KU’s zone. That included misses on seven of their first eight attempts and zero offensive rebounds.

“I have to be honest with you,” Self said after the victory. “We put in a really, really bad zone when practice first started, and about three days ago (we) killed it and said, ‘Let’s just play an old-fashioned 2-3. And we practiced it maybe for seven minutes.”

For Kansas (7-1 overall, 1-0 Big 12), Thursday’s offensive hero was junior guard Ochai Agbaji, who led the team with 23 points, including the game-winning layup with 14 seconds left. He said Self’s decision to go to the zone was a turning point.

“We threw a different look at them that they hadn’t seen,” said Agbaji, who tied with senior Marcus Garrett in playing a team-high 34 minutes. “We were covering their shooters and playing outside, making them play around the 3-point line. That kind of slowed them down a little bit and played into our favor more.”

Texas Tech built much of its second-half lead of 7 points by pounding the offensive glass. The Red Raiders (6-2 overall, 0-1 Big 12) out-rebounded KU 13-6 on the offensive boards and also held a 16-5 edge in second-chance points.

But the zone neutralized both of those areas.

“It was definitely great,” Garrett said. “I felt like they were getting a lot of tipped balls and offensive rebounds, and once we went zone, we were able to get stops and rebound the ball.”

Here’s the crazy thing about the KU zone — other than the fact that the Jayhawks were playing it in the first place, of course. Garrett, the reigning national defensive player of the year, was on the bench roughly half the time they played it.

Dajuan Harris and Agbaji were up top a lot of the time, with David McCormack in the middle and Jalen Wilson and Christian Braun on the wings. When Agbaji went out for a quick breather for a couple of minutes later on, it was Harris and Garrett up top.

Asked whether he and his teammates were comfortable playing zone defense, Garrett hedged with his answer.

“Uh, you could say that. But probably not really,” he said. “We don’t run it much in practice. We probably spent like five, 10 minutes on it. But it was effective tonight.”

And when the Jayhawks took the lead on Agbaji’s layup with 14 seconds to play, the next two Texas Tech possessions — one before a timeout and one after — were run against Kansas’ man-to-man defense.

What motivated Self to go to the zone in the first place? There were two reasons.

First, Self didn’t think McCormack guarding Texas Tech’s Terrence Shannon Jr. was a good matchup if the Jayhawks continued to switch defensive assignments at all five spots. Since Self wanted to keep McCormack on the floor to rebound and to help force Tech to guard more than just the perimeter when KU was on offense, he found a way to keep him in the game without exposing him defensively.

The other reason: free throws.

Tech, which has been one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free throw line so far this season, was already in the double bonus at the eight-minute mark of the second half. Self said that made the zone appealing.

“Even though they still scored some baskets and obviously Shannon made two huge 3s against it, what it did was it kept them off the free throw line,” Self said.

“It wasn’t great,” he added. “But it was good enough.”


Bryce Landon 1 year, 11 months ago

I've said it for years, Self should have his guys play zone more often. Many times it's more effective than his beloved man-to-man.

David Davison 1 year, 11 months ago

I think part of the reason it is so effective is because it is utilized so infrequently.

Edit: I see my point was made by others earlier..

Brian Wilson 1 year, 11 months ago

To me it's really good to change Yes, we should be playing man-to-man 70% of the time because we have the talent, But, other talented teams should be able to figure out a way to overcome and compete if you keep playing the same way, showing the same things, not changing a thing, they will catch up and you will eventually lose. Reminds me of UK, "gonna win it all", with the most talented bestest 10 greatest players evah!.....all were going to the NBA and they were so confident they rotated 5 and 5, every 10 minutes, and didn't hardly sub because they had so much depth. And then in March BAMMMM, they lose! No National Championship. Bad night, taken out of their game, failed to adjust. Now I only remember their failure. I can't even remember their names!

Robert Brock 1 year, 11 months ago

I was surprised that Chris Beard didn’t call a timeout and get his team set up to pick the 2-3 zone apart. They didn’t get into the seams and make the zone collapse. The Red Raiders seemed befuddled as to how to attack such a simple zone defense.

Dale Rogers 1 year, 11 months ago

Which is why I disagree with playing zone more often. Use it when we really need to make something happen. If we use it too much, other teams start preparing more for it and the effectiveness goes down. Remember years ago in the Final Four (I think it was the FF) when we beat North Carolina and when immediately after the game Roy Williams was asked about dealing with the KU zone he said "They played zone?" He wasn't expecting it, wasn't prepared for it.

Art Jefferson 1 year, 11 months ago

Yeah Bryce, Self should do like Ryker and Shelby when the Enterprise faced THE BORG; Keep fluctuating the shield arrays (I think I said it right). That's Funny Brian! Thanks for the morning chuckle. Guess what? UK has now lost 4 in a row. BAMMMM - BAMMMM - BAMMMM - BAMMMM! We might just fool around and Catch-em in short order if they keep up the "BAMMMM." BAMMMM away YOOKAY! GO UNC! (I'll be a UNC fan at 1:00 tomorrow)

Blake Brown 1 year, 11 months ago

Going to the zone was a brilliant coaching move and certainly threw them off of their planned play out of the TO and it broke up the rhythm they had going offensively.

Also, it was a great out of bounds call to deviate from the usual baseline pass in to the rotation that ended up with a layup

Nice win.

Dane Pratt 1 year, 11 months ago

Beard's a good coach but he got out coached last night. Especially in the last three minutes.

Thomas Harrison 1 year, 11 months ago

Without good inside game, Self Will need to utilize a zone more often to allow better defense and rebounding!

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