On multiple occasions since returning to Carolina in the spring of 2003, Roy Williams has been unequivocal about his feelings on zone defense: "I hate zone," he has said. "I can't coach it, and I don't like it."
Knowing Williams, it's not difficult to understand his point of view. The coach wants to know who wins and loses-in everything. That includes defense, where there's a winner and loser on virtually every man-to-man possession. Someone gets beaten off the dribble, someone keeps his man out of the lane, someone seals off the post, or someone gets a wide-open jumper. One winner, one loser. Just the way Williams likes it. The defense appeals perfectly to his competitive nature.
So it was a little stunning at his radio show this week when Williams casually mentioned, "We may play more zone. You've got to find something the kids can do and that's one of the things we've been working on the last couple of days. We want to be able to change our defenses a little bit more."
On the one hand, sure, Dean Smith's book was called Multiple Offenses and Defenses, not Man-to-Man Defenses. But on the other, Roy Williams...zone?
Knowing Williams's background, show host Jones Angell followed up by asking how serious these zone intentions might be.
"I've already practiced zone twice this year," Williams said. "I've had years before when we never practiced zone and we might play it in a game just to stand there and look different and see if it would screw up the other team."
Then Williams provided a little insight that might reflect as much about how he's thinking about his team offensively as how he views them defensively. The Tar Heels haven't been poor on defense, as opponents are shooting just 38.2% from the field, putting them fifth in the league in field goal percentage defense.
But as early as Maui, he mentioned he liked Carolina's small lineup, which most often includes P.J. Hairston in the "4" spot that is traditionally occupied by a power forward. That's great on offense, where Hairston can use his quickness to force a bigger defender to chase him on the perimeter.
On defense, however, it could put Hairston (or other Tar Heel wings playing the "4") in the position of having to defend bigger, stronger players. That may not be as big of a challenge in games like tomorrow's matchup with East Tennessee State (tickets are available for the 7:30 tip-off that is not on regular TV, and fans are reminded to bring a toy for the Toys for Tots effort), but it will be an issue with the Atlantic Coast Conference season looming. NC State has multiple talented big men. Kenny Kadji gives Miami some versatility in the paint. Maryland brings the beefy Charles Mitchell off the bench.
"If you think about it," Williams said, "if we go small, how are we going to handle the other team if they have two big guys? That's difficult for J.P. Tokoto or P.J., which would be the guys who would play our '4' spot. If you go zone, you have a chance to help each other inside a little more if they try to post you up. We're probably going to start changing defenses a little more like I used to do."
He's right--although Williams gets an undeserved reputation for being inflexible, zone defense has been a part of the Tar Heel repertoire since his arrival. He taught it extensively (although it was used only occasionally) in his first season, and the zone played a major role in the postseason in helping the Tar Heels overcome some foul trouble on the way to the 2005 national championship.
Exams have jumbled the practice schedule this week, but there's been enough of a glimpse of the possible defensive wrinkles to let players see the advantages.
"We're a very quick team defensively," said Hairston. "We're very active on defense, and in a zone we can get our hands on a lot of passes and get a lot of steals. I think the zone will shock a lot of other teams, and we'll be able to get out and run."
Zone isn't always the most obvious choice for a team that wants to force the tempo. But the Tar Heel in charge of pushing the pace says practice has given him an opportunity to see how it could work.
"We have the kind of personnel that can put pressure on the offense even in a zone," said Marcus Paige, who went through a full practice on Wednesday. "We have a lot of perimeter guys who are able to cover a lot of ground, and that's what you need in a zone. If we can get people to take long shots, we can get long rebounds and get out on the break. It makes the game easier during stretches and gives people a different look so that they're not constantly seeing our man-to-man."