Zone defense experiment has its ups and downs for Pitt
February 11, 2016 12:00 AM
Joel Auerbach/Associated Press
Miami's Angel Rodriguez tries to dribble past Pitt's James Robinson Tuesday night in Coral Gables, Fla.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The most notable numbers from Pitt’s 65-63 loss Tuesday against No. 12 Miami might be 3 and 2.
Jamie Dixon unveiled his latest defensive wrinkle when he had the Panthers play most of the game in a 3-2 zone, with three players positioned near the top of the key and two near the opposition’s basket. This was the first time this season — and in recent memory — that the Panthers played a 3-2 zone, and it is further evidence Dixon is still trying to figure out how to get his team to become more effective on defense.
Dixon has made it clear he wants his team to become a great man-to-man defensive team, but, in recent years, the Panthers haven’t been, and he has adjusted by using more zone. Pitt’s zone, however, had been a 2-3, and at times it has been very good at playing it, but Dixon decided to see how a 3-2 worked.
He said the 3-2 has flaws just like every other defense.
“We’ve been working on [the 3-2 zone] for a while, and it was something that we wanted to use,” Dixon said. “It did some good things for us, but, at the end of the day, it got us beat. We didn’t get it done the last play of the game. We have to come up with that rebound.”
The Hurricanes’ winning basket was a tip-in by Angel Rodriguez off a missed putback with 1.4 seconds. Had the Panthers just grabbed the rebound, they would have sent the game into overtime.
The final play aside, the zone worked well and caught the Hurricanes by surprise. It enabled Dixon to keep his best collection of offensive players on the floor without sacrificing as much on the defensive end as they would if they played man.
“It is something we have been working on for a long time and now that we used it, it is something we need to improve,” James Robinson said. “But, again, we know we need to become better at our man-to-man defense as well.”
Miami spent the first half seemingly unsure about how to attack the zone and ended up settling for a lot of perimeter shots. That was a big reason the Panthers were able to build a nine-point lead.
Pitt held Miami to 29 first-half points, and that included a last-second running desperation 3-pointer by Sheldon McClellan. The Hurricanes shot only 45 percent for the game (23 of 51) and 30 percent from the 3-point line (6 of 20).
Dixon said he was happy with those numbers and saw enough good things to know that he will use the defense again. It’s now something future opponents will have to prepare for.
“We bothered [their shooters],” Dixon said. “I thought we did some good things on the backside of the zone as well. We’ve just got to continue to get better.”
Robinson said the new defense took a little adjustment, but he liked it because it allowed the Panthers to play well as a unit. It also gave Dixon flexibility in terms of what combinations he put on the floor.
“It was effective,” Robinson said, “I don’t know that we were perfect, I know we had some breakdowns, but we just have to figure them out now. But it is definitely an option that we have, even though we will continue to play man-to-man.”
Like Robinson, Ryan Luther, who played 26 minutes and had 12 points and seven rebounds, thinks the Panthers need to continue to work on their man-to-man defense, but he liked the way the 3-2 worked.
He said the Panthers need to figure out how to rebound consistently from the zone, but it helped them slow down the Hurricanes’ dribble penetration and forced them to take some tough outside shots.
“We got beat a little bit, staying down under and giving up the hoop,” Luther said. “But, for the most part, we did a good job of containing them and staying in front of them.
“I can see at times how it will work well, but, at some point in every game, we are going to have to play man-to-man, so it was a good change of pace. It helped us get a lead, but we needed to get a couple of more stops down at the end.”
Paul Zeise: pzeise@Post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
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