Can Deacs Hone Zone?

Playing zone defense may or may not be the solution to the problem that has dogged Danny Manning since he became Wake Forest’s head coach four seasons ago.

But last night it was his ticket to ride to an 80-73 victory over Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Joel Coliseum.

Yeah I know the backcourt finally started resembling what we were expecting all along, with Bryant Crawford contributing 20 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists while Mitchell Wilbekin and Brandon Childress chipped in 12 points apiece on 4-of-8 accuracy from 3-point range. And I know the big guy, Doral Moore, made good use of his career-most 32 minutes to hit 6 of 7 shots from the floor to finish with 12 points and 6 rebounds.

But if you were watching the same game I watched from the living room of the hacienda headquarters, you saw the Illini emerge from the locker room to score on eight of the first 12 times they brought the ball upcourt against Wake’s man-to-man defense. You also saw the game change dramatically once Manning directed the Deacons into a zone, with either Wilbekin or Childress applying pressure up top before dropping back into the 2-3.

Stopping teams from scoring was a problem at Wake Forest long before Manning took over before the 2014-15 season. The exceptions, at least since the days Tim Duncan patrolled the lane, were in 2002-03, Josh Howard’s senior season, and the back-to-back seasons of 2008-09 and 2009-10, after coach Dino Gaudio had time to get his Pack-Line defense up and running the way he wanted.

The 2002-03 team held opponents to a field-goal accuracy of 39.7 percent, the ninth-best mark in school history. The 2009-10 team did even better, holding teams to 39 percent, the seventh-best mark, while the 2008-09 team ranks 10th with a field-goal percentage defense of 39.8 percent.

The result? The 2002-03 Deacons finished first in the ACC regular season on the way to a 25-6 record. The 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams combined for 20 conference victories and played in the NCAA Tournament both seasons.

Last winter, when a torn shoulder tendon forced me to start watching the Deacons on television instead of from courtside, I began charting the number of times the opponent scored against the number of Wake stops. Game after game I noticed how easily opponents scored against the Deacons, especially down the stretch with the outcomes still in question.

The same pattern held true through the Deacons’ first six games of this season, pocked by home losses to Georgia Southern and Liberty and setbacks in Lynchburg to Drake and Houston. Even in last Friday’s 81-75 home victory over UNC Greensboro, Wake allowed the Spartans to score on nine of their last 12 possessions.

Danny Manning, by inclination and background, is a man-to-man coach. He learned his basketball from Larry Brown, who in turn, learned much of what he knows from Dean Smith. Brown and Smith knew that strong teams played strong man-to-man defense.

But last night, after the Illini raced out to an early lead, it was the zone that stopped them dead in their tracks. I kept track, like I said, and of the 52 times Wake Forest got downcourt in time to set up its zone, the Deacons got 31 stops.

That’s hardly the Russians at Stalingrad, as Skip Prosser was wont to say, but it’s a far cry better than any results Manning has gotten lately from his man-to-man.

Afterward, Manning didn’t sound completely sold what he had seen from the zone. He made mention of how the Illini made 12 of 29 of their 3-point attempts, for 41 percent, and how they turned 17 offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points. The Deacons did, indeed, have trouble boxing out in the zone, but the records show that four of Illinois’ 3-pointers came early before Wake resorted to its zone.

What Manning did like was how the zone allowed Moore to play the most minutes of his career.

“He’s such a presence for us in there, not necessarily blocking shots but having guys have to shoot over him,’’ Manning said. “But when we do that we have to do a much better job with other players if we want to get rebounds and box out.’’

The question becomes how will other teams attack Wake’s zone, now that they have more than 30 minutes of videotape to study the Illinois game. The Deacons play Richmond at Joel Coliseum on Saturday, and the Spiders’ coach, Chris Mooney, is a guy who knows his Xs and Os.

He’ll have a plan if and when Wake resorts to a zone. The question will then become how much Danny and the Deacons adjust what they’re doing.

But last night, at least, Manning went zone and it worked. It worked, actually, a far cry better than the man-to-man has worked this season.

Whether it will work again Saturday, we’ll see. But in the sage words of the great rockabilly band BR-549, sometimes you’ve got to do something even if it’s wrong.

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