LEXINGTON, Ky. — It would take something pretty extreme to get John Calipari to lean heavily on a zone defense. Something like, say, fifth-ranked Kentucky trailing Utah Valley by a dozen points in the second half of the season opener at Rupp Arena on Friday night.
Yep, that did the trick. Calipari grudgingly went to his longest lineup — 6-foot-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at point guard with Hamidou Diallo (6-5), Kevin Knox (6-9), Wenyen Gabriel (6-9) and Nick Richards (7-0) — and deployed a 2-3 zone with five guys who all have wingspans of 7 feet or longer.
Calipari can despise it all he wants, and does he ever, but it’s tough to argue with what happened next for Kentucky: 11 unanswered points in 88 seconds and an 18-0 run that gave the Wildcats a lead they would never relinquish.
Kentucky 73, Utah Valley 63 was hardly an inspiring first result, and it raised some real red flags, but Calipari and Co. avoided abject disaster. Thanks to the zone.
“I’ll be honest: We haven’t spent a lot of time preparing [for] zone yet. It did what it was intended to do,” former UK player and current Wolverines coach Mark Pope said. “Smart move by Coach Cal. The zone always has its holes, but if you can have a big zone like they do with their point guard and everyone else, it has a chance to be really effective. It certainly was, I thought, the difference in the game for us.”
All told, the Cats probably played about 7 minutes of zone to start that second half, but it’s all they needed. They forced 5 turnovers in a little more than 3 minutes during the big run — 3 steals in a row by Gilgeous-Alexander, two leading to monster dunks by Diallo — and for the game had 8 blocks and 11 steals.
“At halftime, I said, ‘This is good for us. Let’s see who we are. Let’s see who is willing to fight,’ ” Calipari said. “We went zone and it kind of got us going — and that’s what we should use the zone for.”
Those words must’ve tasted like sour milk in his mouth. He’s a man-to-man purist from way back, and he treats zone like the four-letter word that it is.
“I have had seasons where we have not played one [possession] of zone,” Calipari said. “The issue becomes I have a responsibility to teach these kids how to play pick-and-roll defense, how to stay in front of people, man-to-man. I mean, from here on [in the NBA] there is no more zone. They’re going to have to learn. But I also have a responsibility to win, so I’ll play as much as I have to, to win a game.
“If we played 7 minutes today in zone, would you say that’s more than we played all of last year?”
No, that’s probably an exaggeration. But not a huge one. You get the point — and Diallo gets Calipari’s.
Diallo is the guy who claimed at SEC Media Day last month that his coach was “falling in love with zone” in practice, an idea at which Calipari promptly laughed.
“He’s never going to get crazy about it,” Diallo admitted after Friday night’s game in which he had 18 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. “We’re still going to be a man team first. We’re going to have to buy into defending. I wouldn’t say [zone is] a weapon. I would say it’s something that we can use, just adding to our repertoire. But our weapon is always going to be our man-to-man, and we’re going to have to lock in and get better at it.
“When it comes to big games, we’re going to have to be able to guard [individual] players.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who like Knox had 4 steals Friday, likes the zone as a change-up to get teams off balance.
“Us guarding spots instead of men is going to be tough for other teams’ offense to score on us,” he said. “Early in the year, [Calipari] told us that he’s never really used zone, but we’re so long and athletic that he’s going to have to. You guys so what it did today. It really helped.”
This is probably where Kentucky fans, who’ve heard Calipari claim he’s toying with the idea of a zone several times over the last eight years only to watch that idea go the way of the Dodo bird as soon as one opponent makes one 3-pointer against it, are rolling their eyes. But this is a different kind of team, and it might require a new approach.
“Anybody loves going on an 18-0 run with steals and fast breaks,” Diallo said. “So I loved playing it today. Whatever’s getting us going that day, that’s what we’re going to have to stick to. And that’s the great thing about this team, that we can do many things to get us going.”