Cal: To zone or not to zone?

Kentucky coach John Calipari faces a bit of a strategic dilemma with his Wildcats. The young team has experienced some problems with its man-to-man defense, but has shown promise while playing zone, the latter being a "four-letter word" for its coach.

When it comes to the zone defense, Kentucky coach John Calipari often sounds like 1970s sitcom character Arthur Fonzarelli attempting to say he was sorry or wrong to one of his Happy Days cohorts.

He has trouble even getting the four-letter word out of his mouth.

The only thing Calipari may hate more than the zone, however, is seeing his trademark man-to-man defense carved up for one easy basket after another by opponents this season. UK foes are shooting 40 percent from the field this season, a significant increase from his first four seasons with the Cats. In conference play, the figure is even higher, including three teams (Vanderbilt, LSU and Missouri) shooting 50 percent or better against UK.

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Kentucky (20-6, 10-3 SEC) has a rematch with LSU (16-9, 7-6) on Saturday at Rupp Arena. It will be another test for the Cats, who were carved up for 29 points by the Tigers' Johnny O'Bryant in Baton Rouge.

The persistent issues have led Calipari to experiment, although not totally commit, to playing some zone defense in recent games. A faction of UK fans have beckoned the coach to use even more of it.

"People that want us to play zone, it's kind of like coaching a kid and being positive 80 percent of the time, but he only remembers that you got on him," Calipari said.

"… But I'm getting better at teaching it, I'm getting better at understanding it."

A few of those "zone people" may carry more weight with Calipari than his typical radio show caller or internet message board fan.

The UK boss recently got a call from another former UMass player expressing disbelief that his old coach was using some zone with the Wildcats.

Describing how the Minutemen used to practice offense when preparing to face a zone team, Calipari joked: "I told them stand around and put your arms up, and if someone goes by you, kinda switch."

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. (USA Today Photo.)
Whether Calipari knows how to properly instruct zone defense or not, a respected coaching colleague is telling him he should be using more of it.

"Jim Boeheim and I talked," Calipari said of the Syracuse coach best known for his trademark zone defense. "I said, ‘You know I played your zone.' He said, ‘I watched it... You should play more zone.'"

But there's also a streak of classic coaching stubborn streak that Boeheim has detected.

"He said every time your team gives up a 3, you go back man-to-man," Calipari said. "And he said, but if the other team makes three 3s against your man, you don't go zone."

Defending the 3-point line has always been a priority for Calipari. And, in his defense when it comes to the man-versus-zone debate, the Cats have been outstanding in limiting opponents' damange from beyond the arc. Team are shooting at a .298 clip (133 of 447) against UK from 3-point range, the best mark of the Calipari era and the best mark in program history since the shot entered college basketball during the 1986-87 season.

Calipari conceded that this may be his best zone offensive team since coming to Kentucky, likely because the Cats are better at simulating zone defense in practice. He said freshman guard Aaron Harrison, in particular, excels in the zone defense, while his twin brother, Andrew, tends to struggle with it.

There is give-and-take.

"It's helped us," Calipari said. "I'm not arguing the point, but I do know this: (Auburn coach) Tony Barbee said to me, ‘You're good in zone, coach, but when you switch everything, it's a one-on-one game. There's nothing else we can do.' When you play zone, you know they're always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point. Now, if they're making them, you lose… When you're playing man and switching, it means they're taking a contested shot."

But at the very least, UK's "Fonz" may be willing to compromise.

"It's a good change-up. It's a good defense for us. It's been good," said Calipari, almost as if he were trying to convince himself as he spoke the words. "We've worked on it every day, which is not something I've done in the past, but we're working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win.

"If it was a game that I thought we had to play zone the whole game to win the game, I'd do it."

Jeff Drummond has covered University of Kentucky sports and recruiting for newspapers, magazines and online publications since 1988 and for Scout since 2012. A Richmond, Ky., native, he currently resides in Lexington.

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