Staying In The Zone With Florida Basketball

With the way the game is officiated today it’s tough to play the physical man-to-man style of defense many of the current coaches in college basketball have hung their hats on throughout their careers. Because of that, the rate in which zone defense is played is growing and the regularity in which we’re seeing zone means teams have to be more prepared than ever to deal with the most exotic of defenses and it also means most teams need to have a zone defense look or two in their back pocket ready to pull out at any time. With the season less than 10 days away the Gators will be putting their finishing touches on their offensive and defensive looks and being prepared for anything will be of utmost importance.

Alright, let’s talk zone.

Zone Usage

Mike White used zone fairly regularly (around 10% of the time) during his last three years at Louisiana Tech and truthfully I thought we would see it more at Florida already. Last season the Gators only played zone 3.3% of the time and only mildly more the season prior. The zone didn’t go well for Florida as they got cut up pretty good, allowing 0.271 more points per possession than when they were in man and they fouled 2.3% more often, a pretty bad stat when you consider a lot of teams play zone defense to keep their players out of foul trouble. Even though the Gators didn’t play a lot of zone last year I think we could see it more this upcoming season. Here are my reasons why.

Firstly, the team’s length. With 6’4” Andrew Nembhard at point guard you could get really, really long lineups out there. Imagine 6’6” Jalen Hudson and 6’7” Keyontae Johnson at the wings with a pair of 6’9” and athletic frontcourt pieces in Chase Johnson and Kevarrius Hayes. That lineup could look really good in a 2-3 zone and could be a great alternative look to their normal man pressure.

Secondly, it could allow the Gators to hide some pieces that might need to be insolated on defense at time. I don’t think Nembhard is going to struggle mightily on defense this year but if some of the more talented guards the Gators will play put him into screen and rolls constantly that would be a lot of pressure on the freshman point guard. Playing a 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone (the two zones I’ve seen from White at Florida) would keep him from getting put in tough screen and roll situations and could play well to his skills at defensive anticipation. Speaking of guarding pick and rolls, the bench bigs could really have trouble containing these sets. Gorjok Gak, Dontay Bassett, and Isaiah Stokes might have trouble guarding in space if teams put them in pick and roll and they might be better served guarding in a zone. A 2-3 with Gak as a shot blocker could be a massive deterrent and a 1-3-1 zone with Stokes or Bassett in the center could be a great use of their physicality as they protect the middle of the floor without having to move their feet a ton.

Lastly, it would allow the Gators to be a more difficult team to scout. The SEC is a monster this season and I think the Gators are going to have to diversify their play to make sure opponents don’t fully have the book on them by February and March. I expect the Gators to not show their hand too much in the non-conference portion of the season but then mix in some different defensive looks in conference when it’s not expected.

Playing Against The Zone

The eye test may not have always been favorable for the Gators against the zone as they often had the ball sticking in the hands of their guards but by the numbers they were actually mildly better (0.09 points per possession and 2.2% better from the field) against zone than against man. Their adjusted field goal percentage was also a healthy 7.2% better against man than zone, indicating they shot the three ball better against zone, but they drew 5.5% less fouls against the zone and turned the ball over a hair more at 0.9%.

Teams actually played a good chunk of zone against the Gators, 17.5% of the time to be exact, and I’ll be interested to see if the number is similar this year. If there is any doubt about Nembhard’s shooting ability teams might stack up in a zone to dare him to shoot over the top, and they might also see zone as their best defense against dribble penetration from Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen. How productive the frontcourt is will also play a role in how teams defend the Gators as little frontcourt production last year allowed teams to play zones that stretched far to the outside to prevent ball movement knowing that there wasn’t an elite interior player for Florida to dump the ball into inside to go one-on-one.

No one loved playing against a zone last year as much as Jalen Hudson whose completely ridiculous 68.2% affective field goal percentage (field goal percentage that accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2s) against zones showed how much he feasted on open space he could find against the set defense. For reference, his affective field goal percentage against man was only 52.9%. KeVaughn Allen also shot the ball much, much better against zone as his affective field goal percentage took a jump from 42.7% to 56.3% from man to zone.

How Much Zone Will We See?

I expect the Gators to play more zone this season and see about the same amount of zone from the other team. Mike White has proven he can make any set of a players a good defensive team but I think this is the year he decides to zone up more often to diversify the looks the team has and utilize all the skill sets of the deep roster. Mike White was known for his pressing at Louisiana Tech but we haven’t seen that at Florida yet. With a roster deeper than anything he has even had this could be the year we see more pressing and with that we could also see more zone as the pressure falls back into something like a 2-3 or 3-2 zone.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.