Seemingly out of nowhere, The Athletic dropped a massive story last week on the future of zone defense in college basketball with the architect of the greatest zone in the history of the sport, Jim Boeheim, now retired. The story was detailed extensively in last week’s edition of Fizz Five, but it’s worth looking into more just exactly what was said, and the logical conclusions made by Boeheim, Adrian Autry, and other coaches around the country.
“Man-to-man,” Boeheim said about what defense he would play if he was starting at a new program this year. “Just too many good shooters. Too many coaches that know how to attack zones. I would try to play almost 90 percent man, but I’d like to have a good enough zone to play 10-20 percent.”
The numbers back up Boeheim’s sentiment, because Syracuse’s defense over the past handful of years has been abysmal, including finishing near 200th on kenpom’s defensive efficiency rankings the last two seasons.
It wasn’t as good because we were slow,” Boeheim said. “We didn’t have good team speed. But if you don’t have good team speed in man-to-man, you’re in the same boat. It really wasn’t the zone; it was just the people in the zone.”
Well, if it was the people in the zone, then the blame still falls on the guy who recruited and brought in the players to play the zone, Boeheim. Syracuse’s defense in the late 2000s and early 2010s was elite because of its personnel and coaching, and clearly having that elite personnel that fits the zone perfectly is a major difference. Despite having what looks like better personnel to play zone in 2023-24, Autry is not committing to it full-time.
“You want to be balanced, obviously, but I think we’ll lean heavily on man-to-man,” the new head coach said. “When those guys are so extended because guys can shoot so far, it just opens the court up. When they get it into the middle part of your zone, you wind up playing three-on-three, but three-on-three with someone kind of coming down in rotation, so they’ve got a little bit of an advantage.”
Autry did go on to say that he wants to employ some zone next season, but it may not look the same as the 2-3 that has been run for the last few decades in Central New York. The only power conference schools to play more than 50% of their possessions in zone last season were Syracuse and Washington, coached by former SU assistant Mike Hopkins, not a coincidence. Those times seem to be ending, and major conference zone defense might no longer be a majority player in conferences like the ACC and Pac-12.
Zone is not completely dead, just look at what the Miami Heat did throughout the NBA Playoffs, throwing a curveball at the opposition every now and then with some zone defense. But, eventually, you run into a zone buster, and while there is no Nikola Jokic in college basketball, there are plenty of guys who can play from the foul line off an entry pass. Full-time zone defense is going extinct in major conference college basketball, just another part of the sport’s evolution.