Dukes ‘Hate’ Zones
But Brooks Sees Plenty Of It
Posted: January 29, 2013
JMU’s Jazmon Gwathmey defends against Richmond this season. JMU prefers to play man-to-man. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
“I hate it,” said the James Madison women’s basketball coach, a former point guard for the Dukes. “There’s not enough accountability. I loved playing against a zone, because I just felt like you could always find holes in a zone.”
Brooks is, for the most part, alone in the Colonial Athletic Association, where zone defense has become the standard. Teams like JMU, Delaware and Hofstra remain man-to-man devotees, and some squads, like Drexel, dabble with man-to-man, but the trend is definitely zone.
Just ask Brooks.
For years, his team has played almost exclusively against zone defenses. A handful of opponents this season — Wisconsin-Green Bay, Richmond, Drexel and Hofstra — have gone man against the Dukes, but it’s rare.
Opposing coaches said JMU gets zoned so hard because of its athleticism. Teams don’t want to risk getting beat one-on-one, so they pack it in and make the Dukes beat them with outside shooting — something they’re capable of doing with sharp-shooting guards Tarik Hislop, Kirby Burkholder and Precious Hall.
Madison also beats the zone with crisp rebounding (it has the second-best rebounding margin in the CAA) and fast breaks.
“They’re so aggressive,” Old Dominion coach Karen Barefoot said. “I really feel like they have a great point guard, and they’ve got great athletes. They’ve got a good shooter, and they’ve got exceptional rebounders, so you’re not just guarding one or two players out there. … You gotta focus on everybody.”
Brooks said his affection for man-to-man defense came from Lefty Driesell, his coach at JMU.
“Lefty always said, ‘A zone is like Swiss cheese: It’s got holes in it, and you’re going to find it,’” Brooks said. “He was pretty much a man-to-man guy. Matter of fact, he teases me, and the last time I saw him, he told me I better not be playing zone.”
But Brooks hasn’t totally rejected this somewhat maligned zone trend. It does have its place.
In Sunday’s win over Hofstra, Brooks went to the zone in the second half to keep Burkholder — who ended up scoring a career-high 28 points — out of foul trouble. Brooks estimated his teams play man-to-man about 80-85 percent of the time.
“When we play zone, my blood pressure goes up,” Brooks said. “I just feel like there’s no accountability. There are so many times when a kid could say, ‘Well, I thought that was her rotation. I thought that was her coverage.’”
CAA coaches said the prevalence of zone has increased significantly in the last 15-20 years and cited a number of factors — a big one was the rise of the dribble-drive offense, which is predicated on getting to the basket. Zones are supposed to keep you from the hoop.
“The fundamentals of the game have changed,” Drexel coach Denise Dillon said. “It’s a lot more dribble-drive — the attack and trying to get points around the basket, and shooting percentages are not as high. The mid-range game has changed. It’s not really there. It’s either layups or 3-point shots, and I think that’s one of the main reasons you see more zone than man-to-man.”
Dillon could be considered old school. The Dragons run a complex, highly structured offense that is Princeton-esque. She’s also not exclusively zone or man-to-man. Drexel makes use of a blend, although it plays zone about as well as any team in the CAA.
Another factor coaches mentioned was poor youth coaching, notably, in high school and AAU. The result, coaches said, is college players who aren’t necessarily ready to play college defense. Man-to-man is harder to play than zone.
“I just cringe when I see these coaches trying to play zone,” Brooks said. “And I think a lot of it is it’s easier to teach zone than to teach man-to-man principles and holding kids accountable.”
Some teams, though, are forced to go zone by personnel. Dillon’s style — she recruits to her offense, which doesn’t need players who can create off the dribble — is certainly that way. North Carolina-Wilmington goes zone because of numbers. The Seahawks rotate only seven players and play zone to keep those players fresh and out of foul trouble.
“We have to be a zone team to protect our kids from foul situations,” UNCW coach Adell Harris said. “… I would love to be man every possession and deny passing lanes and play overly aggressive and taking risks; we just can’t to do it with our personnel.”
Brooks is an unlikely defensive advocate. His teams have been built on offense. But last season, after CAA career scoring leader Dawn Evans graduated, Madison became more defensive-minded, led by CAA Defensive Player of the Year Nikki Newman.
Left without a dominant scorer, Brooks adapted. He estimated that earlier in his coaching tenure, he spent about 10-15 percent of practices on defense. Now, it’s about a third.
“Kirby was coming into her own, and nobody else was really what you would call a scorer,” the 11th-year coach said. “So we had to hang our hat on defense, and I think it really carried over. … We get after it, and the kids understand rotations, and they take pride in it.”