I like a good zone defense in basketball. Notice I used the adjective “good.” When a zone is run effectively, it forces teams to shoot from the outside more, which makes shooting percentage generally go down. However, every zone has holes in it which good teams can exploit. Once a team has figured out how to counter your zone, you have no choice as a coach except to change things up defensively.
Which is what made watching our Lady Gophers from the University of Minnesota so frustrating this year. I get it – we have a horse in the race with Carlie Wagner and want to see her succeed, which is one reason I get so passionate when I watch them, almost the same as I do while watching the Vikings or Twins.
Anybody with any amount of basketball knowledge who also watched the Gophers probably shouted at some point, “Stop with the zone defense! Man up!” I know I did, and I heard many people around me saying some variation on that at their final game, a loss to the Coyotes of South Dakota. Coach Marlene Stallings continued her obstinate ways by staying in the 2-3 match-up zone, even when the Coyotes repeatedly found the hole at the free-throw line for shots and demonstrated superior cross-court passing to find the open shooters on the outside.
The other way a zone sometimes hurts you is in the rebounding department, and that was a major Achilles’ heel for our home team this year. When you are in a man defense, you are always close to a player and can box out when a shot goes up. With a zone, you sometimes find yourself in space, which means the offense also has unguarded people who can crash the boards and get the easy rebound.
In conversations with Carlie, I’ve gotten the sense that the team might not like the zone much either. Again, to use it at times is a good idea, but you’ve got to switch things up and keep the other team guessing. My gosh, we were able to do it at the junior high level the last couple of years. We didn’t run a great zone, but we’d throw it on at times, always ready to return to a man defense at a moment’s notice.
Just look at our high school ladies in their section loss to NYA. Our zone wasn’t working as planned because one of their players seemingly couldn’t miss from outside. Onika switched it up and had one of our players face-guard that girl, which shut her down for a while. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough, but that ability to change what isn’t working, even when you look at it as your bread and butter, is what good coaches do.
The oft-used phrase is that defense wins championships. We see that played out time and again across all sports. What’s the first thing Mike Zimmer did when he took over as coach of the Vikings? He revamped the defense. Even without a great offense the past two seasons, the Vikings almost always had a chance to win. Now he’s revamping the offense, and that balance is what we loyal fans hope will result in a trip to the Super Bowl in the next couple of years.
When the Twins were winning consistently earlier this century, defense was the name of the game. They were always near the top in fielding percentage and rarely made errors. That has slipped recently. When the team started so poorly last season, they weren’t even making the routine plays at times; I remember watching an outfielder drop a normal fly ball, the kind that Little League kids make every day. The team’s defense improved as the season went on, but that early stretch cost them the playoffs.
Now they’ve put their best power hitter, Miguel Sano, in the outfield, where he is shaky at best. The Twins traded away a good defensive outfielder and signed another power hitter, but it’ll be interesting to see how this puzzle fits together. At the end of last season, our boys had one of the best defensive outfields in the game but little pop at the plate. Will the tradeoff of defense for offense result in more wins? That’s what we’ll hope for.
As a coach, I always set defensive goals for my teams. If we learned the basics of defense and played well at that end of the court or out in the field, we were going to have success. It would take all the players to buy in; good teams find weak points in your defense and exploit them. It’s hard to hide a bad defensive player in basketball, and the baseball always manages to find that kid who is afraid of a batted ball.
Hopefully all the teams we root for in Minnesota will focus on those defensive fundamentals. We’d all love to see the Twins and Vikings make runs in the playoffs, and defense will jumpstart those chances. And I know we’re all interested in seeing how Carlie adjusts to being the center point of the Gopher offense next year, but deep down we know defense will win out and she wants to be a winner more than anything.
Word of the Week: This week’s word is alar, which means relating to the armpit, as in, “The zone defense could also be known as an alar defense since all players’ hands should be held high.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!