Will UConn men's basketball team play more zone, full-court pressure after performance vs. Xavier?

STORRS — Zone defense really isn’t in Dan Hurley’s DNA.  

Passed down from his Hall of Fame high school coach father, Bob Sr., Hurley likes playing zone about as much as he enjoys playing golf. He rarely does either. 

Unfortunately for Hurley, his UConn men’s basketball team doesn’t seem to enjoy playing man-to-man defense a whole lot, either. At least for the past few weeks. 

And so, after watching Xavier slice and dice through his team’s defense for 20 minutes on Wednesday night, driving to the hoop with ease while also knocking down five of 11 3-pointers, Hurley had the Huskies play zone almost exclusively in the second half. 

“If we would have stayed in man,” Hurley reasoned, “they might have shot 70 percent.” 

UConn rallied back from what had been a 17-point first-half deficit and got to within a single point four different times in the latter half before falling to Xavier 82-79. The comeback was helped by full-court pressure defense the Huskies employed for much of the half. When UConn began applying pressure about four minutes into the half, it quickly led to a steal by Adama Sanogo that led to a 3-on-1 break. 

Fittingly on this night, however, that break was thwarted when Andre Jackson tossed up a lob pass to Sanogo, whose vertical will never be confused with Stanley Robinson’s (or Jackson's). Sanogo missed the dunk. 

Ultimately, UConn’s press was effective, helping to turn the Musketeers over 10 times over the final 20 minutes. Playing significant full-court pressure requires some depth, and UConn certainly has plenty of players at its disposal. 

Is this something Hurley will consider using more frequently moving forward? The coach seemed noncommittal.

“It’s a lot harder to press these days, with most teams having four perimeter (players) around the big,” Hurley noted. “But yeah. Part of the reason why the press works is because the other team has a lead, and maybe they get a little bit passive.” 

Meanwhile, UConn played zone almost exclusively in the latter half, seemingly switching up between a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 look at different junctures. 

“It’s rare for me to have to get out of man defense almost entirely,” Hurley noted. “We couldn’t guard their guards in the first half, they were getting to the rim, getting anywhere they wanted on the court.” 

The zone helped slow Xavier’s halfcourt offense down a bit, as the Musketeers attempted just 26 shots in the latter half after hurling up 32 in the first. 

Still, Xavier hit 15 of those shots. That’s 57.7 percent. Not quite 70 percent, but close enough. 

“It might not have felt this way ... (but) even though the pressure went up and it was a different defense,” Xavier coach Sean Miller pointed out, “we were still able to score 43 points.” 

Playing more zone could benefit the Huskies in some ways. It could provide a chance to play 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan alongside 6-9 Sanogo more often, clogging up the lane and, ostensibly, providing towering help against driving opposing guards. 

“When they do drive,” guard Tristen Newton pointed out, “we have to help a little more.” 

Playing zone can also lessen a team’s tally of fouls. UConn committed 18 fouls in the first half on Wednesday, 12 in the second. 

Still, playing zone brings different challenges. For one, it can lead to more offensive rebounds. Too many times in key moments down the stretch on Wednesday, Xavier came up with crushing, second-chance baskets. 

“You don’t have the block-out responsibility when playing zone,” Hurley noted. 

Perhaps most notably, zone is usually something built into a team’s identity. Think of those stifling Syracuse 2-3 matchup zones from 15, 20 years ago. Jim Boeheim is still playing that zone today. 

Zone isn’t really in Hurley’s identity. While it will remain an option, it doesn’t sound like Hurley will be going full Boeheim moving forward. 

“Zone has got to be something we use to disrupt rhythm,” Hurley noted, “but if we can’t get our man defense fixed … teams that exclusively play zone are not doing particularly well.” 

Indeed, Syracuse is 13-8 this year, 6-4 in a weak ACC and on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament bubble, at best. Of course, UConn seems trending that way, as well.

UConn gets a five-day respite from game action that Hurley noted comes at a good time. The team needs to regroup. There were some positives on Wednesday night, most notably the offensive second-half offensive explosions by Jordan Hawkins (26 of his game-high 28 points in the second half) and Newton (15 of his 23). 

When the Huskies return to action on Tuesday night in Chicago against DePaul, they will almost certainly no longer be ranked. Will they feature a little more fullcourt pressure, a little more zone? Doesn’t sound like it. 

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges