GREENSBORO, N.C. — By Jim Larranaga’s rough calculations, last season opponents played a grand total of 10 minutes of zone defense against his Miami team.
But this season, the Hurricanes coach — sounding like a ranting Larry David from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — said he has noticed a sea change across the ACC and the rest of the country: Almost everybody is incorporating zone into their game plans, including Larranaga.
According to Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, Larranaga is one to talk.
“He’s the guy that’s doing that!” Dixon said. “He should look at himself. He’s playing zone, and I always thought he was a man-to-man guy.”
Larranaga isn’t alone in noticing it or changing his style. Several coaches at this week’s ACC tournament said they have seen the shift.
“We’ve probably played against man-to-man less than half the time, which is an incredible transition,” Larranaga said.
Why is this happening? Two reasons, according to the coaches. One is the NCAA’s new hand-checking rules.
The other is that playing zone — like a resurrected fashion trend — is a fad again in college basketball, especially after the success of Louisville, which used full-court zone pressure to help win the national title last season, and Syracuse, which continues to set the standard for zone defense under coach Jim Boeheim.
“Teams that win, people tend to imitate,” Larranaga said. “They start realizing like we did. As soon as our season ended last year, I told our coaches to start researching zone defense.”
The new rules have accelerated the transformation. Coaches say it’s harder to guard driving players one-on-one without fouling, necessitating more frequent switches to zone to limit foul trouble.
“We ran into it a couple games with foul trouble and fouls that weren’t fouls in the past,” Dixon said. “That’s the biggest challenge. I said this was going to happen each time they made a rule change — longer 3-pointers, calling the game closer on the perimeter. Teams are going to be using zone more because of that.”
One motivation behind the new rules was to jump-start scoring, but zone defenses can cause games to slow down, negating the effect. According to NCAA data compiled by Kevin Pauga, Michigan State’s director of basketball operations who runs the blog KPI Competition Analytics, teams were averaging 70.8 points through March 9, up from 67.5 a season ago.
“It’s probably a bigger trend than the rule, and the rule has waned a little bit here in the last month as a point of emphasis,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “The other thing is you want to see if people can consistently make shots over you. You get to that at some point in the season.”
One coach offering a dissenting perspective was Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, who said he noticed a slight uptick early in the season in opponents playing zone but did not notice as much during the conference season.
“Most coaches stay with what they’re most comfortable with,” said Hamilton, who is loath to play zone. “Sometimes you get into a groove in zone; if it works for you, you use it. It just doesn’t work for us. I would love to, but every time I go to a zone, everybody starts raining 3s from the parking lot.”
The NCAA wants more eyeballs affixed to games on TV, and the hand-checking rules were implemented with that in mind. So is more zone defense good for the game?
“All in all it’s probably what people don’t want to watch, but I don’t know if that determines what’s good for a game,” Dixon said. “It’s still going to keep the game slower.”
Even if the game is speeding up to get in the zone.