Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is a proponent of man-to-man defense. He has used it with great success in the past, especially when he had players capable of playing it properly. Even last season, except when breakdowns occurred late in games, the Illini's man defense was successful.
"The crazy thing is, if you look at the numbers, we had one of the best field goal percentage defenses again, and one of the top three point defenses. We just didn't create turnovers because we didn't have the guy who would get in the passing lanes and get the deflections, put pressure on due to the makeup of our guys."
In recent years, the Illini have lacked the athleticism and perhaps determination at all five spots on the floor to apply proper pressure to an opponent. If any one man can't stop quick penetration and then doesn't get help he needs, the defense suffers.
"We had to stay solid because if we extended, we were gonna get beat. You didn't have the backstop to your defense. Even though (Mike) Tisdale blocked a lot of shots, we didn't take charges. We didn't have the physicality."
Illini fans became frustrated with opponents exploiting these weaknesses late in games and assumed a zone would work better. Weber explains the Illini still had the same weaknesses regardless of the defense deployed.
"I think the faults we had in man were even more exploited or emphasized in zone. So you have to be smart. You have to understand you have to get the shooters."
That understanding was limited at best. Teams find zones easy to exploit if defenders stand around or fail to recognize responsibilities. They either shoot them out of it with a barrage of three-pointers or penetrate and hit open interior teammates for easy buckets.
Weber would practice zones more often if he had time to do so. Teams used to have six weeks before the start of the season. Now it is two or three weeks, not enough to teach one defense let alone multiple defenses. Weber notes other top teams stick primarily to man principles.
"VCU played some zone, but I look at the Final Four two years ago. West Virginia played zone, but Duke played man, Butler played man. Butler played man the whole time.
"Ohio State didn't play zone one time, and they won the League. Matt Painter didn't play one bit of zone. Bo Ryan doesn't play one possession of zone. Coach (Gene) Keady. Coach (Tom) Izzo used to play a little bit of zone, but he doesn't play zone now."
Fans blame Weber's so-called inflexibility for not at least mixing man and zone defenses. But that appears to be an erroneous judgment.
"I'm not saying it's not good. For the Mavericks, I think it was key. It was a change of pace thing. I'm not against it. Sometimes in practice we try zone. I would tell those who were there to go to the (Internet) boards and tell everyone we were the worst zone team in the country. I was doing it jokingly."
Maybe so, but he was correct in revealing the porous nature of Illini zones. Players have to be extremely dedicated and team-oriented to play a zone properly. They need long wingspans and quick reactions to disrupt passing lanes. And they need to adapt to the strengths of each opponent.
The Illini played excellent man defense at times last year. But they didn't get deflections leading to easy transition buckets. That and a lack of free throws prevented them from producing more offense to counteract defensive limitations.
"So it's that fine line. We had good numbers, but we didn't turn people over. If you really study it, we turned it over too much, and then we didn't get to the free throw line."
Ultimately, it is not the specific defense that wins games, it is the athleticism and commitment of the players. Hopefully, the Illini have a better blend of talent this year and can play man defense well while using a zone on a situational basis.