Pressure's on Team USA's zone
It was a sight USA Basketball director
A few minutes into the game, a whistle blew and Krzyzewski walked onto the court, barking instructions.
"OK, guys, we're going to go orange," he said. "Orange for the rest of the game."
"Orange," in this case, was basketball code for zone. When Team USA broke camp in Las Vegas last month, before reuniting this week in New York for more workouts, implementing a zone defense wasn't even on its radar. Pressure was the word of the week, with U.S. coaches convinced that the team's length and athleticism would make it a dangerous pressing unit in the upcoming FIBA World Championships.
However, recent circumstances -- specifically the withdrawal of most of the team's top big men -- has led to a shift in that thinking. With
Playing zone, coaches say, will position more bodies near the backboards. To that end, the U.S. has tapped assistant coach
"I told Jimmy he has been on vacation for three years," Colangelo joked. "It's time to put him to work."
Most players are familiar with the zone, but few have played it since high school while some have never played it at all. And the early results showed: When the U.S. switched defenses during scrimmages, blown coverages often led to wide-open threes. And on one possession, an out-of-position U.S. team gave up three straight offensive rebounds.
"I tell our guys, If [international teams] get a look, they are going to make it," Boeheim said. "You have to really be active. A lot of people think zone is a rest period. It's the opposite. You have to be active and every guy has to work. If one guy breaks down, you're in trouble. We're trying to take away the three rather than let them have it."
While the pressure is on everyone to learn the zone, it's especially important for the guards. The benefit of having an extra body underneath means the two guards up top have to cover more ground and defend the pick-and-roll without the benefit of a big man stepping out to help. That's a foreign concept to NBA players whose minds are trained to expect help.
"It's harder playing that zone than man-to-man for the guard because there is so much room to cover,"
If executed effectively, the zone could be a major weapon for Team USA at the World Championships. Offensively, the U.S. wants to get in transition as much as possible. A solid zone should keep opponents out of the paint and long rebounds generally lead to fast-break opportunities.
"You can always run better off the zone," Billups said. "When the guards break out, they are tough to pick up on."
Defensively, the U.S. coaches see the zone as a change of pace that could throw off opponents that have adjusted to the Americans' relentless pressure.
"It can take away the inside and take away the offensive flow," Krzyzewski said. "If you really play it well, people think you give up the three in it but you can match up pretty well in it."
Said Chandler: "We're so athletic and long, we can funnel players where we want them to and get a lot of fast-break points. It also allows us to be settled on one end and fast on the other end. We're a fast team but on defense, we kind of have to slow it down. It's a struggle to learn how to pace ourselves."
While mastering the zone will take time, Boeheim says he has been impressed with just how quickly the players have started to learn the defense.
"They are unbelievable," he said. "If you go from A to C with a college kid, you're in trouble. You can go from A to M with this group. They are really good at picking things up. In a few days we can be a really good zone team."
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