The easiest way for any team to beat a zone defense is by making threes.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self knows this as well as anyone, so he was not sure how to react when he studied New Mexico State and realized the Jayhawks were destined to see lots of zone in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament, Friday at CenturyLink Center.
“The best zone offense is usually the offense that has the best shooter shooting it,” Self said. “It’s kind of like free throws. Show me a great free throw-shooting team and I’ll show you a team that has really good shooters. Certainly we have attacked zones great at times and we have looked poor attacking zones at times.”
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It all goes back to outside shooting.
“We have shot it great at times this year and we have shot it very poorly,” Self continued. “We’re on a little bit of an uptick shooting the ball. I think we went three for 12 last game; we’re really starting to get in a rhythm there shooting the ball.”
Self was joking about his team’s shooting rhythm, of course. Kansas made a total of eight three-pointers — and missed 28 — during its three-game stint at the Big 12 Tournament. The low point occurred in the quarterfinals against TCU. For the second time in three games, the Jayhawks failed to make a three.
That shooting slump has some KU fans worried about the possibilities of a poor offensive showing against New Mexico State, and, consequently, an early exit from the NCAA Tournament. On top of using a zone defense, the Aggies also press.
Kansas has been inconsistent against both.
“They are a very big team and they are very athletic,” sophomore Kansas guard Brannen Greene said. “They are a team that can give us problems, but that is just like any other team.”
Kansas is confident in its chances. It beat Baylor three times, sweeping the lone Big 12 foe that plays exclusively zone, and twice beat Texas, which mixed in zone looks with a roster filled with length and athleticism.
New Mexico State players say they model their zone after Baylor. Attack it the same way, and KU players think they will find success.
“If you get the ball to the middle, you can get whatever you want,” Greene said. “If you get in the middle they are coming from behind and attacking, because they are so big and athletic. That’s our big thing, just getting it in the middle and attacking.”
New Mexico State’s zone does leave gaps in the paint. Unlike Baylor’s packed-in defense, the Aggies send their guards and forwards outside in hopes of defending the corners.
“Their zone is a distorted 3-2 that looks like a 4-1, because they bring their guys up really high,” Self said. “So it’s a little bit different than what we’ve seen, but it’s from the same family.”
KU junior forward Hunter Mickelson said the Jayhawks have been simulating it in practice since Sunday.
“We know what we need to do to have a good game against it,” Mickelson said. “Just play well with it, don’t make any mental mistakes or give up any easy baskets and kind of move the ball around quick enough to hit the guy in the middle. Hit the open guy whenever we see him. It all depends on how well we move the ball and create open space.”
Added junior forward Perry Ellis: “We all have to be in attack mode and not settling for shots. That will be key.”
Three-pointers would help, though.
It has happened before. Kansas, despite its recent struggles, has made 37.6 percent of its threes. And it had a three-game stretch against Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech when it made a total of 31 three-pointers.
Greene knows what is at stake.
“When I hear zone I think of open shots,” Greene said. “But you have got to knock them down.”
To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @KellisRobinett.