University of Kansas

Four reasons why KU could benefit by playing more zone

Kentucky’s Malik Monk passed the ball while surrounded by Kansas’ Devonte' Graham (left), Frank Mason III (center) and Svi Mykhailiuk in Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky’s Malik Monk passed the ball while surrounded by Kansas’ Devonte' Graham (left), Frank Mason III (center) and Svi Mykhailiuk in Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The Associated Press

Add this to the things you wouldn’t have expected from Bill Self.

First it was moving to a primary four-guard look, the Kansas coach running his offense through drivers and shooters instead of the post. Now, following a 79-73 victory at Kentucky, the Jayhawks dominated defensively with help from … multiple defenses?

“There’s not going to be any educational tapes on that zone tonight,” Self said with a smile at the postgame press conference, “but I do think we played it pretty well.”

KU went to a 2-3 zone that confused Kentucky late in the first half, and after that, Self put on his full Jay Wright impression and started mixing up the defenses like Villanova during last year’s title run.

The Jayhawks started the second half with their Triangle-and-2, then went to the 2-3, then rotated back and forth three different times.

And now, the question becomes this: Should switching be the Jayhawks’ defensive identity? Should the zones continue from here on out?

Self is quick to say that the setup is matchup-dependent, noting KU had this in Saturday’s game plan because of Kentucky’s particular roster.

Still, there are four reasons that Saturday’s defensive formula could make sense for this year’s Jayhawks.

1. Rest

Self explained this part of it well after the game.

“I thought our zone won the game for us for one reason: It allowed Frank (Mason) and Devonté (Graham) to play 37 minutes and not be totally gassed.”

KU is great in transition with its four-guard look. Yet, it’s difficult to ask the guards to continue playing at their fastest gear while knowing they have to play a lot of minutes because of a short bench.

Zone defenses could help. No more chasing shooters on the defensive end or running unnecessary miles. Mason and Graham can set up in their spots and catch a tiny breather in-game instead of going to the bench to do that.

2. Protect Landen Lucas

The 6-foot-10 center has become one of KU’s most valuable pieces because of the team’s lack of depth inside, and his ability to anchor the defense and be a rim-protector should be just as important in the games to come.

The 2-3 zone allows him to stay centered in the lane without having to play in no-man’s land while hedging screens on the perimeter. It also could potentially hide him from foul trouble while allowing him to always hover around the rim as a shot-blocker.

3. Keep guys energized

When Villanova made its NCAA run last year, players seemed to focus in better because changing defenses forced them to concentrate on their assignments.

This KU team has seemed to relax at times defensively, perhaps again because guys are asked to play so many minutes. That seemed to change Saturday, as the Jayhawks played smart defense in the zones while shading toward shooters like Malik Monk.

“They made some tough shots, but we can live with that,” Mason said. “We just want to contest everything.”

4. Force turnovers

Kentucky turned it over on 23 percent of its possessions Saturday, which was its second-highest mark of the season. That also was the third-best performance for KU’s defense this season.

The zones caused confusion, which led to mistakes. And for these Jayhawks, any potential miscue is doubly valuable because of the team’s strength in transition.

Self has talked about how this team couldn’t pressure as much defensively because that requires energy, and the guards already were being asked to do a lot. Perhaps this is a way to get rest and steals at the same time.

Yes, this is outside of Self’s normal comfort zone. The Jayhawks had played zone just 59 of 1,411 possessions coming into the game (according to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs) and 77 possessions in the previous two seasons combined.

Self believes man defense is best. He’s said it a lot.

But a Mason quote afterward was telling too.

“Hopefully we don’t have to (switch defenses) moving forward, because we take pride in playing man to man and guarding our man,” he said. “But whatever helps us get the win, we’re willing to do.”

Is this how KU would play defense in a perfect world? No.

But one has to admit — with this year’s team — there are reasons to believe it just might work.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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