In his first years as a head coach at UMass, John Calipari had a not-so-sophisticated approach to teaching zone.
His team needed to at least be able to show the defense in practice for the purposes of preparation, but Coach Cal never actually intended to use it in games. For that reason, zone installation was a quick process.
“I told them stand around and put your arms up,” Calipari said, recalling his approach. “And if someone goes by you, kind of switch.”
Two decades later, Calipari has softened a bit on his anti-zone stance.
Fielding the tallest team in the country, according to kenpom.com, Calipari has turned to a 2-3 zone in spots as a way to capitalize on his personnel.
“It’s really good,” James Young said. “It’s active. We have our hands up. Coach tells us to communicate a lot so I think it’s more effective than our man, really.”
The basicsWhat: No. 18/16 Kentucky (20-6, 10-3 SEC) at LSU (16-9, 7-6 SEC)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena
Game notes: UK | LSU
Video: Cal’s pre-LSU presser
Video: Julius Randle, James Young looking forward to another shot at LSU
TV/Radio coverageTV: ESPN
Radio: UK IMG
Satellite radio: XM 85; Sirius 85
Online audio: All-access
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com
LSURecord: 16-9, 7-6 in the SEC
Head coach: Johnny Jones (35-21 at LSU)
Player to watch: Johnny O’Bryant (29 points, nine rebounds in first meeting)
Series history: UK leads 83-25
Last meeting: LSU won 87-82 on Jan. 28
Calipari doesn’t quite agree with that, but he does admit it has value as a change of pace. That’s why he has committed himself to becoming a better teacher of zone, soliciting the help of Rob Murphy, whose Eastern Michigan team has visited Rupp Arena each of the last two seasons.
“Well, Rob at Eastern Michigan was the one who came in and really, you know, gave me the breakdowns and the drill work because you can’t just do – you’ve got to break it down, you’ve got to do it, you’ve gotta give them an idea what they have to do and then I would call him,” Calipari said.
Murphy was a longtime assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, the coach perhaps best known for zone. In fact, UK’s zone has caught Boeheim’s attention.
“Jim Boeheim and I talked and I said, ‘You know I played your zone?’ ” Calipari said. “He said, ‘I watch it.’ He said, ‘You should play more zone.’ And he says, ‘Every time your team gives up a 3, you go back man-to-man.’ And he said, ‘But if the other team makes three 3s in your man, you don’t go zone.’ ”
Much of that can be chalked up to ribbing between two friendly coaches, but the zone has been effective in spurts since Calipari began going to it more frequently.
“In the beginning, it was kind of shaky, a little kind of gaps and stuff,” Young said. “But as we practice it more, there’s not as many gaps and we’re communicating in it more.”
The first game — a win at Missouri — in which No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) used zone extensively came immediately after a road loss to the Wildcats’ next opponent, LSU (16-9, 7-6 SEC). UK was blistered for a season-high-tying 87 points in the Jan. 28 defeat.
“Just the intensity and the fight just wasn’t there,” Julius Randle said. “It was embarrassing, but that’s why we get another chance to play.”
The Cats trailed by double digits for most of that icy night in Baton Rouge, La., as Johnny O’Bryant posted 29 points and nine rebounds. UK rallied in the final minutes with a flurry of 3-pointers, but don’t let the 87-82 final convince you LSU was anything other than dominant.
“Johnny O’Bryant was really good, but he wasn’t the only guy that outplayed us,” Calipari said. “They outrebounded us. They outcoached us. They outran us. They got is in transition defense. They got us every which way to lose.”
Randle and Young both conceded they are thinking about payback ahead of Saturday’s 4 p.m. ET tip in Rupp Arena, but neither was about to offer anything in the way of bulletin-board material.
“I don’t like to do too much talking,” said Randle, who was held to six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the first LSU matchup. “We’ll see what happens once we get on the court.”
There will be similar intrigue regarding how often Calipari turns to the zone, which has evolved beyond a standard 2-3 in the last week. UK most often deploys the zone out of dead balls and it begins with a sort of 1-1-3 look when opponents cross mid-court.
“It’s more like a tandem, like one guy up top and a guy under him,” Young said. “When they get it toward the corner or anything, then we go back to our normal 2-3 zone. It’s just to throw the offense off.”
Calipari debuted the tweaked zone in a loss to Florida last Saturday in which UK defended as well as it has all season for the first 29 minutes. The Cats used it again in a Tuesday win at Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 38.7-percent shooting.
Jarrod Polson drew praise from Calipari for his activity in the zone, but the real standout is Aaron Harrison.
“I’ll tell you who is the best zone player I’ve seen is Aaron,” Calipari said. “He’s like; I’m calling him ‘The Cat’ now. The team is laughing their butt – I show them on the tape, man, he’s like a cat.”
Coach Cal fielded multiple questions about the zone on Friday at his regular pregame media availability, questions surely fueled in part by a rapidly growing group of zone advocates among the fan base. Calipari, however, doesn’t want it to be forgotten the zone has been far from flawless.
“It’s funny, people that want us to play zone it’s kind of like coaching a kid and being positive 80 percent of the time and he only remembers that you get on him,” Calipari said. “So the zone people out there see every stop and don’t realize that Mississippi was getting back in the game because they made four straight baskets in a row (vs. the zone).”
It’s in those moments that Calipari remembers why he’s so staunchly relied on man-to-man defense throughout his career. Fittingly, it was a former player of his at UMass who reminded him of the same thing.
“(Auburn head coach) Tony Barbee said this to me: ‘You’re good in zone, Coach, but when you switch everything (in man-to-man), it’s a one-on-one game. There is nothing else we can do,’ ” Calipari said. “When you play zone, you know they’re always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point, now if they’re making them, you lose.”
That doesn’t mean Calipari discounts the value of zone altogether. In fact, it’s been a boost to a Kentucky team beginning to find its stride.
“But it’s a good changeup,” Calipari said, “it’s a good defense for us, it’s been good and we’ve worked on it every day which, you know, it’s not something I’ve done in the past but we’re working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win.
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