Commentary

In the zone

Noted man-to-man defense enthusiast Bruce Weber is open to dreaded 'z word'

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

Weber
Andy Altenburger/Icon SMIIllinois coach Bruce Weber believes using a zone defense at times this season might play to the strengths of his roster.

David Weber has an idea of how long his older brother Bruce will bear watching Illinois play zone this season.

"He will probably get out of it after the first 3 is hit by the other team," David said.

Zone is a vulgar four-letter word to Bruce Weber. He refers to it simply as "the dreaded z-word." The Illinois coach learned to despise it at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee when he was an assistant under legendary Wisconsin defensive coach Paul Noack. His hatred for it grew deeper when he joined Gene Keady's coaching staff at Purdue.

And ever since, Weber has been almost strictly a man-to-man guy with his own programs.

At least until now. Weber has been throwing around the idea of the Illini playing some zone this season.

"People laugh about it when I say it, but I may not have any other choice," Weber said.

David Weber did just that, laugh.

"It is funny he wants to play zone," said David, who coaches at Glenbrook North High School. "I am surprised he is trying to play zone. We both like to play man-to-man. I hate zone, but it is sometimes necessary.

"It may date back to our high school days at Milwaukee Marshall when all we played was a 2-3. We just stood in a zone and let teams shoot from the perimeter. Maybe that is why we both developed a dislike for zones."

Weber never had to use zone because he had the proper-sized athletes to play man all the time. Now, he thinks players like 6-foot-9 Bill Cole and 6-7 Dominique Keller might benefit defensively from Illinois playing that dreaded z-word.

"Some of it is Billy Cole, Dominique, if they're our better guys, and we got to get them in there, they might not be able to guard the 3, but maybe we can play a little zone," Weber said. "We have a little length. We might experiment with that a little bit."

Junior center Mike Tisdale sees there being an adjustment period for the players as well as Weber.

"We know he's a man-to-man guy," Tisdale said. "He knows that. We know that. With zone, he knows we have to change some things. He has to get used to it himself."

Illinois assistant coach Jay Price can actually think of only 2½ possessions in his past seven years with Weber that the Illini played zone.

"I remember we played it at Wisconsin our first year, and they hit a 3 and a layup," Price said. "At Northwestern, we went to zone, and they called a timeout. When they came out, we were back in man, so I'm not sure if that counts.

"It's not something that's in our personality. We've always been an aggressive man-to-man team and one of the better ones in the country. We're worried, too, if we go to zone, the players will think, 'Oh, great, we get to relax.' "

In the Orange and Blue Scrimmage on Sunday, Price and Weber agreed to go to zone on one possession. It was going fine until an extended 3-pointer was made.

"We just laughed," Price said.

Zone has always worried Weber for a few reasons. For one, he believes there are too many good shooters these days.

"I just think in this day and age there are so many guys that can shoot, dribble and handle," Weber said. "It's harder and hard to play zone consistently. Even Syracuse, when [Jim Boeheim] has length and long guys, and they're good at it, that's one thing. But if you don't have that length, it's a little tougher to win with it.

"It's like pressing. How many guys really press? It used to be the point guard could handle it, the 2-guard a little bit, the 3-man probably, the 4-man you didn't want him to dribble and the 5-man you ran him down the court. Now, you have the wrong guys with the ball and you could pressure them. Now, [Ohio State's] Evan Turner is a 4-man, and he's like a point guard. Now, it's so different."

Another reason is home-court shooting percentages.

"I think if you play zone consistently if you go on the road, teams can just shoot so much better at home," Weber said. "We always talk about playing at the magic level at home. Teams get on a run, now, you can't stop them.

"We'll see what happens."

David Weber was just as curious.

"We will see," David said.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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