Attacking the zone

After running like a Corvette during the first 12 minutes of last Friday's basketball opener against Austin Peay, Tennessee's offense ran more like a Chevette over the final eight minutes of the first half.

What would cause a team that scored 27 points in 12 minutes to manage just 4 points over the next eight minutes?

In a word ... zone. The Governors went to a 2-3 zone defense, and Tennessee's offense began spinning its wheels. As a result, a 27-10 lead was reduced to 31-25 by halftime.

When Cameron Tatum drained a couple of 3-pointers and Scotty Hopson added another at the start of the second half, Austin Peay went back to its man-to-man defense and the Vols went back to scoring at will. They posted 52 second-half points and romped 83-54.

Given how poorly Tennessee responded against Austin Peay's zone defense in the first half, however, it's a safe bet that the Vols will see plenty of zone when they host UNC Asheville tonight at 7 in Game 2.

Anticipating that the Governors would play mostly man-to-man, UT head coach Bruce Pearl didn't spend a lot of practice time last week preparing for zone defense. So, the Vols got a little on-the-job training Friday night.

"There was a limited zone package in," Pearl recalled. "I had a number of things during timeouts I put in that we'd done in the past but we'd never done in practice because we'd only been at it for three weeks."

Pearl's offensive scheme is built on spacing that creates gaps in the opposing defense. And, as he notes, "You can't spread out a zone as easily as you can a man to man."

That's why Austin Peay's zone enjoyed success - albeit temporary - last Friday night. And that's why UNC Asheville will give Tennessee some zone looks tonight.

"We will see more zone against Asheville, so there's a little more (zone offense) in," Pearl said. "That gives us a little more variety. Zones do tend to slow you down. There's nothing you can do about it. That's why they play the defense. But I still think you can be a very high-scoring team."

The key to attacking a zone is attacking the basket. Most teams struggle to do so.

"Zones tend to get you standing around on the perimeter and usually cut down on dribble penetration or interior offense," Pearl said. "We try to not let it cut down on our interior offense. I've got to get us to do a lot more dribble penetrating against it."

When a team struggles to attack the basket, the next-best answer against a zone defense is to drain a few 3-pointers over the top of it. Hopson (4 of 6) and Tatum (3 of 6) did this Friday night, forcing Austin Peay to abandon its zone in the second half. Freshman Skylar McBee, though 0 for 4 from beyond the arc, is another Vol with the shooting range to zap a zone.

"We like a fast-paced game, and we didn't really expect to see zone coming from them," McBee said of the Governors. "It kind of slowed us down for a little bit ... but, luckily, it didn't affect us too much.

"This week in practice and for the games to come we're going to work on that more. Coach Pearl is going to put in stuff that's going to over-prepare us to face a zone."

Until the Vols prove they can consistently score against the zone, however, they're likely to see a steady diet of it.

"I think so," McBee conceded. "We didn't have a very good 3-point shooting percentage last year, and I think teams are going to at least try that (zone) out at the first of the game and see if we can make shots."


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