NCAA Tournament: West Virgina hopes zone works against Kentucky


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TAMPA, Fla. -- It seems almost every year the nation's top high school point guard, along with two or three other top-rated players, sign with whatever team John Calipari is coaching.

All of those players say they want to play in Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense because it allows them to showcase their individual skills and prepares them to do the things they will be asked to do in the NBA.

So what is this dribble-drive offense that Kentucky coach Calipari uses and why is it so hard for teams to stop?

Part of the reason has to do with the players Calipari has recruited over the years to run it. Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and now Kentucky freshman point guard Brandon Knight have been outstanding running the attack, which is tough to defend because it spreads out an opponent and forces defenders to pick a player to try to stop. When that happens, someone else is usually open.


Today

Game: No. 5 seed West Virginia (21-11) vs. No. 4 Kentucky (26-8), 12:15 p.m. today, East Region third round at St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.

TV, radio, Internet: KDKA.

Pitt: Is looking to reach the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in its past seven NCAA tournament appearances. ... Coach Bob Huggins is 8-1 all time in games against Kentucky coach John Calipari. ... Beat Kentucky, 73-66, in a regional final last year to clinch trip to the Final Four. ... Leading scorer is Casey Mitchell (13.7 ppg). ... Outrebounding opponents by an average of four per game.

Butler: Is 13-5 overall against West Virginia and has won seven of past eight games against the Mountaineers. ... Is 3-1 against teams coached by Huggins. ... Three leading scorers are freshmen, Brandon Knight (17 ppg), Terrence Jones (16.3 ppg) and Doron Lamb (12.8 ppg). ... Coach John Calipari is a Moon native and former Pitt assistant. ... Former Panthers forward Orlando Antigua is a WVU assistant coach.

Of note: West Virginia is 27-0 under coach Bob Huggins when it shoots 50 percent or better from the field.


"[The ability to drive at any time] that's one of the reasons why [the offense] is attractive to play in," Knight said. "If you feel like you have a guy that can't guard you, you just kind of go by him and if someone steps up to help, you [pass] to the next guy and he has an advantage now because the defender is going to be running out at him and he can drive it.

"[The point guard] is a guy that can drive a basketball and try to create for other players on the team."

Although the offense has been successful -- Calipari has won more games than any other coach since the 2005-06 season and he has been to the Elite Eight four of the past five seasons and the Sweet 16 in each of the past five seasons -- critics point out that it still has yet to produce a national title.

But Calipari believes it gives players the best chance of scoring and said he has always been a fan of the motion offense.

That offense has evolved into the dribble-drive system because players have gotten better taking their defenders off the dribble.

"I went to this offense because of points per possession, I think your efficiency is better because you are trying to get open layups or open 3s and you're trying to get to the foul line," Calipari said. "You're not going to have a whole lot of assists, but you're not going to have a whole lot of turnovers, either, so your efficiency is better.

"Kids like to see it because they look at it and say, 'He let's them play.' "

One coach who seems to have figured out the dribble-drive offense along with all of its earlier versions used by Calipari is West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose Mountaineers (21-11) face the Wildcats (26-8) at 12:15 p.m. today in an NCAA tournament East Region third-round game at St. Pete Times Forum.

Huggins is 8-1 against Calipari, including last season when the Mountaineers upset the star-laden Wildcats, 73-66, in a regional final to earn their first trip to the Final Four since the Jerry West era.

Huggins said two things have helped him against Calipari's teams: He has had good players who take pride in defending and his willingness to switch to a zone when it is clear his team can't match up defensively.

Last year, the Mountaineers started out playing man-to-man on defense then quickly switched to a 1-3-1 zone when it was evident they couldn't stop Wall. That forced the Wildcats to take more 3-pointers than they wanted -- Kentucky made just 4 of 32 from beyond the arc.

Huggins tried to downplay his record against Calipari by saying, "We've just been lucky, that's all."

He added the key to playing against the Wildcats is stopping their penetration by any means necessary.

"We thought we could do a better job man to man a year ago against them than we did," he said.

"We put Devin Ebanks on a lot of good players because he was so long, it bothered people. But in that game, John Wall went by him a few times and he came over to me and said, 'Coach, man that cat is really fast, I'm trying, I'm trying.' He just couldn't stay in front of him. So we had to do something else."

West Virginia guard Joe Mazzula added: "A lot of their shots were contested from the 1-3-1. We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back and that's what we've got to do [today]. We can't let them get standstill shots or set their feet."

Although the 1-3-1 worked last year and seems to work well in some instances against Kentucky, the Wildcats say they are more equipped to handle zone defenses because they are better shooters.

Kentucky is shooting 40 percent (248 of 623) from behind the 3-point line this season, which is a dramatic jump from last year when the Wildcats made only 33 percent of their 3-pointers (231 of 697).

It should again come down to the Wildcats' ability to make shots against the zones, and the Kentucky players know that hasn't historically been easy for Calipari's teams to do against Huggins defenses.

"[Huggins] has that zone and they are really good at it," Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson said.

"Coach Cal has never really had a team that shot well against zones, and once a team goes zone, it is hard for [us] to play dribble-drive. It is just tough to get open shots and it is tough to create off the dribble against the 1-3-1, so we look for them to go back to it."


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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