It’s so simple, it works. But how does the zone work and why does it work so well? We asked the apprentice himself, Mike Hopkins, who spent 22 years learning the defense under Jim Boeheim, and brought the scheme to Washington, where the Pac-12 champs have established themselves as a dominant ball-hawking defensive team.
How does the defense get set?
When the ball comes up, our guards clap hands. It’s a sign of being together and being connected. Our forwards are up, taking away the first pass for the shooter. And our center is in the back for the lob, defending the top.
What are the main principles of the 2-3 zone? What are you trying to accomplish with it?
It goes back to philosophy — what are you trying to take away? Analytics would say the most dangerous shot in the game is the three-point shot. We’re trying to take away three-point shots, layups and foul shots. That’s what teams are trying to get these days. If you can get tough, contested two’s, you have a good chance to be in the game. We’re not changing from man to zone. Our zone keeps getting better, we don’t go away from it, we try to get it better.
What are you trying to take away with the zone? What are you giving up?
Traditionally the zone defense is a weak-rebounding defense, because you’re not boxing out people, you’re boxing out areas. When you play man-to-man teams, they could have 50 different offenses and options. Most teams only have three or four different zone offenses. Over time, our guys have seen everything that can be thrown at them and they know the adjustments. And they know how we have to defend. When guys can execute those things after a timeout or on the fly, it makes it a huge advantage.
Do you adjust zone scheme for different teams? Do you ever break away from it?
No question. And that’s where people will say, “well what did you do on this, or what did you do on that?” That’s our secret. That’s our secret sauce. That’s the secret ingredient. It’s not mayonnaise and ketchup combined. It’s a little different. But for the most part, we start with our foundation, and we have our adjustments to take away different things.
When did you fall in love with the zone defense?
It was my experience at Syracuse. Number one, I fall in love with any defense that helps you win. (In 2009), we had played a lot of new guys, we had played man-to-man against Le Moyne College — a Division II team, five miles away — and we lost to them playing man. That was the last possession of man (Jim) Boeheim had ever played at Syracuse. I learned a long time ago, you’re better off being great at one thing that being pretty good at a lot of things.
Is the zone catching on with other teams?
I think you are seeing it being used more. Duke last year played mostly all zone, Rick Pitino ran a matchup zone, John Cheney at Temple was exclusive — he had two different zones. You see in our league this year, a lot of teams are running more zone than you’ve seen before.
I think the biggest thing is people coach what they know. I was lucky to work for the guy that made it and built it. We’re just trying to adjust and make our own adjustments based on our personnel and what we do in our league and our style. It’s part of the DNA and what I’ve done and I’ve been really lucky. I think a lot of people are trying to learn it.