More college basketball teams are going to zone defenses in the early season to counter the increase in the number of fouls being called under the new rule changes, but University of Miami coach Jim Larranaga has gone to more zone for a slightly different, more basic reason.
His Hurricanes simply aren’t getting the hang of the man-to-man defense Larranaga prefers them to play.
The Hurricanes used a basic 2-3 zone for their primary defense in their last game, a 60-49 loss at Nebraska Wednesday, after expanding its use in the John Wooden Legacy tourney the week before. They won two of three games in that event, including a win over Arizona State.
They likely will be in it for a while, including their Atlantic Coast Conference opener Sunday afternoon against Virginia Tech, at least until Larranaga is satisfied they can be effective in the man-to-man.
As the veteran coach explained it at a press briefing Friday, the fundamentals of the man-to-man defense requires the defender to not only keep his eye on the man he is guarding but also keep track of where the ball is on the court.
“This group found that very challenging,” Larranaga said of his Hurricanes. “They would stay with their man and lose sight of the ball regularly.”
That led to many uncontested layups because the “help” defense simply wasn’t there. If the opposing ball handler beat his Miami defender, no Hurricane teammate was coming over to pick him up.
“We were giving up a lot of straight-line drives and opportunities at the rim,” Larranaga said. “That’s how Central Florida beat us.”
Switching to the zone, however, has helped the Hurricanes pay a little more attention to where the ball is when they are on defense in addition to keeping track of the man in their area, Larranaga said.
“Hopefully,” he added, “before this season is over we’ll be able to do both. But right the most important thing is helping each other.”
Forward Donnavan Kirk, who played the last two seasons at DePaul before returning to Miami as a graduate player, said some adjusting has been required for the Hurricanes, who started the season playing primarily man-to-man.
“Zones have their pros and cons,” Kirk said. “For us, it forces us to communicate and give help to our positions. But zones have to be constantly pro-active.
“Sometimes you can be in a zone and just be standing around. You’ve got to continually force yourself to be pro-active and not get caught standing around.”
The Hurricanes, who will take a 5-4 record into their game against the 6-3 Hokies, also have made changes in the lineup from the group that began the season.
Kirk and senior guards Rion Brown and Garrius Adams are the only three Hurricanes who have started all nine games.
Forward James Kelly, a junior college transfer, has started the last five games in place of sophomore Tonye Jekiri inside, and freshman guard Davon Reed has taken over at point guard in place of another freshman, Manu LeComte.
They range in height from 6-feet-6 to 6-9, and their long arms and quick hands and feet contribute to the effectiveness of the zone.
After the game against Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes will take an 11-day break for final exams. They will resume play Dec. 19 at Savannah State, then finish the month with games at home against La Salle on Dec. 22 and Loyola-Maryland on Dec. 30.