Anyone who followed the Bruce Weber coaching tenure at the University of Illinois will recall a familiar source of fan unrest:
“Why is Weber too stubborn to play zone defense?”
Weber was a strict man-to-man defensive coach and believed that if you practice it all the time and make it a way of life in your basketball program, it would give a team the best chance to win. You can say he was stubborn, but I believe he simply felt man-to-man was the better defensive philosophy. I think he viewed zone as a shortcut.
John Groce is also a coach who believes man-to-man should be his team’s primary defense. But he also believes there are times and circumstances when switching to a zone makes sense and he has no problem calling the zone his secondary defense.
Last time out, against Georgia Tech, Illinois played quite a bit of zone late in that game, a game Illinois won 75-62.
On Monday, as Illinois prepares to host Western Carolina Tuesday night, Groce confirmed that Illinois stayed in its zone for 19 possessions in that game, or about 25 percent (maybe more) of the game.
Best of all, he liked what he saw and although he wouldn’t say where or when, he said fans can expect to see more zone in the future.
“It was good,” he said of Illinois’ proficiency in the zone. “It charted out well. We knew we were going to play it some during the game, but I didn’t know we would play it that much.
“It was more of a feel thing, but it was pretty effective during the game and as we continued to chart it, we stayed with it.”
Groce doesn’t like to give out a lot of details, but he reluctantly agreed we can call it a 2-3 zone.
“It’s something we practice,” he said. “That’s our secondary defense. When we feel we can utilize it to be competitive or if it’s a good strategy, we’ll certainly use it.”
Shortly after Groce was hired, he said he liked to use zone as a changeup and said he had won games because of the zone’s effectiveness while at Ohio University.
I don’t know if people really care, or if Weber’s perceived stubbornness made more people seem to care, but whenever Illinois would struggle, I’d invariably hear from fans who would blame a loss on Weber’s unwillingness to occasionally switch to a zone defense.
Well, for those fans, John Groce is your man!
Illinois climbed to No. 13 in the Associated Press national rankings Monday and if the Western Carolina game goes as planned, Illinois will be 9-0 when it heads to Spokane, Wash., to play unbeaten and 10th-ranked Gonzaga at 9 p.m., Saturday. The Gonzaga game will be televised on ESPN2.
The Western Carolina game, which tips at 7 p.m., Tuesday, will not be seen on live TV. It can be viewed at BTN.com and will be rebroadcast at 12:30 p.m. (Central) Wednesday on the Big Ten Network.