Duke Report

Duke Basketball: Is it Time to Use a Zone Defense?

Mike Krzyzewski, USA Basketball

Photo via USATODAY

Times in the ACC are changing. As the conference expands, new schools are bringing new concepts and styles of play to the league. As this transition begins, does it mean Duke Basketball also needs to change? More specifically—should the Blue Devils incorporate a zone defense?

A zone defense isn’t a foreign concept to Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils have rarely used it over the years, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t familiar with how it works. As coach of the U.S. Olympic Team, Krzyzewski regularly faces opponents who try to use a zone defense to stop Team USA. He also has a close friendship with Jim Boeheim, an assistant on the Olympic Team coaching staff and the architect of the 2-3 zone defense at Syracuse.

Between Syracuse joining the ACC this season and Louisville becoming a member of the conference next year, the Blue Devils are about to face two teams that regularly use some variation of a zone defense.

Coaches often talk about the difficulty in preparing to face a team that plays zone defense. Indiana’s players talked about how they didn’t know what to do against Syracuse’s zone when they faced the Orange in the 2013 NCAA tournament because they were so unfamiliar with it. Their confusion showed as Syracuse upset the No. 1 seeded Hoosiers on their way to the Final Four.

The top priority for Duke will be figuring out how to execute when playing against a zone defense. But if the team was to begin practicing its own zone, wouldn’t that help them learn the best ways to attack against a zone?

This doesn’t mean the Blue Devils need to abandon the aggressive man-to-man defense they currently play, but they will be more prepared in the long run if they have the ability to transition to a different defense depending on particular game situations and the opponent.

However, learning a zone defense is not a simple concept. It requires different positioning and communication by your players. It also impacts the way the team reacts to particular offensive sets. Adding a zone defense to your repertoire isn’t something you can do in the middle of the season—it’s something that a team needs weeks to practice, meaning this offseason is a great time for Duke to start.

Man-to-man will always be the preferred defense at Duke as long as Mike Krzyzewski is the head coach. Overplaying the passing lanes and extending a team’s offense out past the three point line is part of Duke’s identity. And based on the success Duke has had, there’s no reason for that to change.

But to make the Blue Devils more prepared for anything they face, whether it’s during the regular season or postseason, it’s time for Duke to add a new wrinkle to the defense.


  • Dave Fortay

    Syracuse uses the zone 99% of the time, but Boehiem recruits for it. He likes 6-9 small forwards with 7 foot wingspans. It’s not just teaching the zone, it’s recruiting for it. Last year they had MCW who was a 6-6 point guard. It makes expanding the zone much easier when you are long and thin.

    And of course Duke should learn more zone. They should be prepared for everything. Two games against Syracuse (maybe 3) a year aren’t a reason to change your system. But if other teams are doing it…then of course.

    • http://www.fromballparkstobbq.com/ David Aldridge

      Thanks for reading, Dave.

      I agree with you that Duke shouldn’t change it’s system. For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with the current system.

      That said, I’d love to see Duke be able to switch to a zone when a particular situation calls for it.

  • Joe Mendez

    While it would be nice for them to set up a zone, I don’t think it would be very useful without a solid big man down low. Unless Marshall Plumlee becomes a solid player overnight, they will be using undersized guys at the center spot with no true anchor in a zone

  • Duane

    Duke need as a zone but coach needs a true starting center more

  • Jack

    I think there is no way duke will ever start using a zone defense. Primarily, Mike Krzyzewski built his career and a powerhouse program off man-to-man. He is quoted during the early ’80s that his teams would have won more games with zone, but he wanted to build a program with man to man. Worked pretty well for him right? As for the ACC newcomers, our man-to-man will give us and advantage over them because they did not seen it in the zone heavy Big East while the ACC already has more teams that play zone by a large margin.

  • ACCBballFan

    Coach K would counter that next year’s team is the perfect group to switch ion every screen, with say Parker, Hood and Jefferson interchangeable on defense, guarding the 2 thru 5.

    Sheed, Dre and Tyler have the bulk guard a bigger guy on a switch, Quinn not so much, plus add in Alex/Josh, the other 2 frosh and see what MP3 can do.