If you play man, you are one," Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril said before leaving Princeton, and few college players today would disagree. Nothing puts a scowl on a player's face faster than orders to go into a pantywaist, arm-waving, go-to-your-area, awwww-wachoomeanIcan'tcheckhim zone.
Nothing, that is, except having to face a zone. That's why, following a regular season marked by the most effective deployment of zone defenses in a dozen years—a regular season in which even Indiana coach and man-to-man absolutist Bob Knight ordered his team into a zone—we're likely to see plenty of them over the next three weeks. The team that triumphs in San Antonio will probably have to face and beat a zone somewhere along the way. "I've heard a lot of coaches say they don't like playing zones," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "Well, a coach likes to win, and if it takes a zone to win, he'll like it fine."
When the NCAA legislated the chippie 19'9" three-pointer in 1986, the zone looked dead. After all, it's the defense least able to challenge an outside shooter. But coaches are now recruiting such quick players that some zones can shift and still recover in time to challenge the three-point shot. And where once coaches went to zones for any number of narrow tactical purposes—to protect a player in foul trouble, to hide a lousy individual defender, to keep a big man closer to the basket—now they may do so for no reason other than "to give a different look," as they say in the trade. "We've used more zones this year and last than ever before," says North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge. "It's for a change of pace." And what else, coach? "To give a different look."
A zone applies brake pads to a game's wheels. It forces offenses to put their guards up, literally and figuratively. Played well, particularly in combination with full-court pressure, a zone can pare an offense's 35-second possession down to perhaps 20 workable seconds. Without sound back-court decision-making, few college teams can be consistently productive in that amount of time.
In addition, as the drive-and-dish school of basketball becomes more and more popular, some teams find that their backcourt defenders are wanting in speed. Playing zone is a prudent alternative to trying to check a jitterbugging point guard man-to-man, or trying to stop several perimeter players who can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. "More teams than ever have more than one great athlete," says Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "You're seeing more zone because it's tough to control great athletes who are always trying to take you off the dribble."
For those coaches who have long believed in the zone, its return provides a chance to say, I told you so. "They booed us at Louisville last year for playing a zone," says Temple coach John Chaney, whose Owls play a defense so nettlesome that it gives a different look virtually every trip down the floor. "Guess what Louisville is playing now?" (The 12-20 Cardinals aren't going anywhere this postseason, but in December they beat Kentucky, the second seed in the South, with an old-fashioned 2-3.) "And Cincinnati's Mr. Man-to-Man," Chaney says, referring to Bearcats coach Bob Huggins, "he's playing zone, too!"
Chaney is entitled to crow, given the number of chesty opponents who have entered his Twilight Zone and never come back. Though the Owls had stifled favored NCAA tournament opponents in recent years—Purdue and Oklahoma State in 1991, Vanderbilt in '93—Mississippi coach Rob Evans played down his concern about the Rebels' first-round date last spring with Temple and its matchup zone, a protean alignment that Chaney has been refining since his days as a high school coach in Philadelphia in the 1960s. All Ole Miss had to do was hit a few threes, Evans said, and the zone would crumble. But by the end of the Rebels' 62-40 loss, Evans had joined the ranks of those who have discovered the hard way that Temple's zone isn't so much a defense as a force of nature.
"We put up stop signs," says Chaney. "Here's a hospital zone. There's a school zone. Speed limit, 15 miles per hour. It's a terrible, nasty, ugly-looking defense, but I'm going to keep playing it."
In a game of, say, 75 turns on defense, the Owls may play 50 variations of their zone. As a result, opposing guards must stroke their chins and riddle out what lies before them on virtually every trip down the floor. Chaney usually packs his defense tight early in a game, conceding shots over it. This keeps his guys from picking up early fouls. (Chaney automatically benches a player if he picks up his second foul in the first half.) After half-time he extends the zone two or three feet and encourages more trapping and gambling.
Throughout the game, Chaney turns usual defensive logic—big guys across the back, little ones out front—on its head. He might stick 6'4" point guard Pepe Sanchez at the back of a 1-3-1, because Sanchez has the speed and anticipation to challenge jump shooters in the corners. Or Chaney might deploy at the top of the zone 6'8", spider-armed Lynard Stewart, who against Fresno State on Dec. 9 galloped off with four steals and scored each time. Or Chaney might not make either of those moves. Which is what makes playing the Owls so maddening.