You can bet that when Virginia’s 14th-ranked basketball team assembled for practice on Wednesday afternoon, the Cavaliers began working on ways to beat the zone defense.
With only four regular season games remaining, three of those opponents play either some zone or exclusively zone defense. After escaping a close call at upset-minded Virginia Tech on Tuesday night, UVa got its first good look at zone ‘D,’ and learned some valuable lessons.
It was the first time an opponent had played zone against the Cavaliers all season long. Whether coach Tony Bennett’s team was freaked out by the difference in the zone or not is yet to be determined. But the shooting percentage 39.2 percent (20-of-51) wasn’t very impressive.
“I thought we got better [against Tech’s zone] as the game wore on,” Bennett said after watching UVa improve to 22-5 overall and 13-1 in the ACC. “You’ve gotta knock down some shots as we did late, but you’ve gotta be able to attack [the zone] in different spots.
“Right now, I’d give it a ‘C,’” Bennett said about the Cavaliers’ play against Tech’s zone.
The Hokies recently went to a 2-3 zone but threw in a little triangle and two against Virginia. For the most part, the strategy was effective until Bennett and his coaching staff made a huge halftime adjustment.
Bennett’s stratagem for the second half was to flash 6-foot-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon to the high post. Every time down the floor, Brogdon was to get at least one touch in the high post, where he presented all sorts of problems for the Hokies’ zone.
“Yeah, that was the key in the second half, getting the ball to me in the high post, seeing if I could make a play in the front or get it to somebody on the perimeter,” Brogdon said after the Cavaliers swept the Hokies for the second straight season. “I think we figured some things out in terms of what works and what didn’t work against the zone, regardless of our shooting. We’ll use that against Notre Dame.”
The Cavaliers don’t play again until Saturday’s home game at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena against the Irish. Notre Dame recently started playing some zone defense. Miami has played zone most of this season and Syracuse is famous for coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, which he has featured in his system for more than 30 years.
Syracuse may play the best zone in the country, although former UVa star and current TV basketball analyst Cory Alexander said recently that the Orange’ defense may look like a 2-3, but it’s really more.
“I had played against a 2-3 from when I was a kid all the way through college, and what Syracuse is playing isn’t a 2-3,” Alexander said. “There’s something else in there. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if anyone other than Jim Boeheim knows, but it’s not your typical 2-3.”
UVa doesn’t play No. 1 and unbeaten Syracuse until March 1, also at sold-out JPJ. The first order of business is Notre Dame.
“It was a great adjustment we made [moving Brogdon to the high post against Tech’s zone] and it might be something we tinker with going forward,” said UVa senior guard Joe Harris.
Brogdon is so versatile as an athletic, 6-5 guard, that he is capable of making plays from the high post spot. Once the ball is passed to Brogdon in that position, he has the ability to create. He can turn and drive the lane and draw a foul or score or to pass the ball inside to a big man or back outside for an open 3-point attempt from either Harris, Justin Anderson or point guard London Perrantes.
Bennett said that his team only had two days to prepare for Tech’s zone because the Wahoos played at Clemson on Saturday.
“I think you learn from it,” Bennett said “You learn in a game setting.”
Virginia outscored the Hokies 36-25 in the second half and after hitting only 3-of-13 shots from beyond the arc in the first half, the Cavaliers were a lethal 6-for-12 in the second. Three of those came on consecutive possessions when Anderson drilled in two and Harris another for the two-game sweep.
“Sweeping Virginia Tech is huge,” smiled Anderson. “It’s one of the great reasons I came here. The rivalry goes deep and we wanted to make sure we didn’t let it stop tonight.”