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Arizona basketball: Zone defense utilizes Wildcats’ size, conserves energy

For a team with seven scholarship players, a zone defense can come in handy

California-Irvine v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Usually, when a zone defense is deployed in McKale Center, it is done by a team that does not have ‘Arizona’ plastered across the front of its jerseys.

Usually, but not always.

Five minutes into the second half of Arizona’s 79-57 win over UC Irvine on Tuesday, the Wildcats strayed from their traditional man-to-man look and lined up in a 2-3 zone.

Arizona had picked up five quick fouls and, as head coach Sean Miller put it, the short-handed Wildcats were clearly ‘wearing down.’

With only seven scholarship players at its disposal, three of Arizona’s starters — Kadeem Allen, Lauri Markkanen, and Dusan Ristic — eclipsed the 16-minute mark in the first half, and that heavy workload translated into heavy legs to begin the second half.

“Not that you want to stand around in a zone, but it’s certainly a different way of playing,” Miller said. “That’s part of why we played some 2-3 zone.”

Since the Wildcats will be dealing with a short bench for the foreseeable future, a 2-3 zone could become a more common sighting for them.

And not just because it helps conserve energy — Miller believes the scheme also allows them to put their size and length to good use.

“The one thing about our team is we have great size, so a 2-3 zone, as we give more repetitions...there’s going to be a time when going to that makes a lot of sense, and we learned that tonight,” Miller said.

A 2-3 zone allows Arizona to use its trio of 7-footers on defense more comfortably, plus its athletic, lengthy backcourt of Allen, Kobi Simmons, and Rawle Alkins can cover ground and disrupt passing lanes.

In other words, a 2-3 zone can be a useful change of pace for the Wildcats — but only that.

Miller was adamant that Arizona is a “man-to-man team.”

“I think it’s hard to be good at a lot of things, and the more zone we play, the worse we’ll be at man-to-man,” Miller said. “So I think working on [the zone], and using it at the appropriate time, that’s probably what we’ll do.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire for more Arizona basketball coverage.