Should Kansas Play a Zone Defense Against Texas?

Kansas visits the Erwin Center in Austin this weekend, a place where they haven't had much recent success. They've won the last four meetings at home vs. the Jayhawks, a place where Kansas hasn't won since 2002. (edit: whoops)

After the huge win against Baylor on Monday, Kansas has the tough task of going to Texas to play a team they should beat on the surface, as Texas is just 12-5 and 2-2 in Big 12 play. But a deeper look reveals that the Longhorns are currently ranked 25th in the Pomeroy ratings, and their two conference losses are close ones on the road. Add in Kansas's struggles there recently, and you have potentially a recipe for our first conference loss. Currently Kansas has a 68% chance to win, but a simple adjustment can increase their chances:

Playing a zone.

Bill Self hates, or at least is extremely reluctant, to play zone, but if there ever was a time and place to do it, it's at this Texas team. Let's take a look at why:

First, a simple exercise in psychology: No doubt the KU players have both been made aware at how poor they've played in Austin recently, and are also busy hearing about how good they are after ending Baylor's undefeated run. A seemingly great way to keep them focused would be to work on zone defense all week, as well as in the game.

Texas as a team is shooting just 33.8% from three, which ranks 195th in the nation currently, and in Big 12 play they are shooting just 32.7%. While there obviously aren't enough games in the sample to determine true talent in that area, we can pretty safely assume that the Longhorns aren't a great three point shooting team.

On an individual basis, Texas has really only one prominent three point shooter, J'Covan Brown. Brown has taken 99 threes and made 39 of them (39.4%). The only other players to take more than 50 threes this year are Julien Lewis (69) and Sheldon McClellan (56). Texas takes roughly a third of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, which is average nationally, but they are taking significantly fewer in Big 12 play, putting them in the lower half of the league. Assuming someone would have a body on Brown all the time, a zone would probably work better against the Longhorns than man to man.

Texas has just one player taller than 6'7", and he plays roughly 20 minutes per game. Texas is 213th in effective height (long explanation here, short explanation is it is a team's height weighted by how much playing time certain players get), and although I haven't seen them play much this year (only parts of their games against Temple and Missouri), I imagine whomever Withey would be guarding would try to lure him out as much as possible. But would Withey even need to come out to challenge them? The number of 2 pt jumpers taken and percentages on those jumpers are as follows (data via hoop math):

Player (Height) Min% % of shots that are 2 pt jumpers FG% on 2 pt jumpers
Jonathan Holmes (6'7") 53.7 28% 54%
Clint Chapman (6'10") 50.1 41% 34%
Alexis Wangmene (6'7") 54 35% 29%
Jalen Bond (6'7") 38.8 24% 23%

As you can see, the Horns big men aren't exactly stretch fours and fives, and Holmes especially lives by getting to the rim. So if Kansas played a man to man offense, Withey would be able to camp himself in the paint without having to worry about getting burned by Texas big men making a ton of jumpers from the elbow.

The last point to consider is the play of Freshman guard Myck (pronounced Mike) Kabongo. Kabongo has struggled from the field, shooting just 46.5% from two and 28.9% from three, but has been incredible at drawing fouls. Kabongo draws 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and owns the best free throw rate in the country at 95.4. Given the foul problems Kansas has had this year (especially Withey, who is committing 5.1 per 40) it might be better to cram the lane so he is somewhat hesitant to go in there.

I have both talked myself into and talked myself out of playing a zone on Saturday (for example, you'd think Kansas could do some sort of box and 1 with Releford on Brown and the other four playing a zone), but if Kansas does play a zone, I think you would have to go with a 2-3 look with Withey in the middle. Texas doesn't take many threes, so clearly shutting down their two point shooting (even though they're only at 42.1% in conference play) should be the top priority. But the devil's advocate would surely note that a 2-3 zone is much more likely to let Brown get a good look from three, which is Texas's best chance at winning.

After 850 or so words, I am sure this doesn't matter: Bill Self will probably play man to man the whole game, and assuming Releford is on Brown it is probably the right call. He's the only player who can beat us singlehandedly, and one of two who can create his own shot consistently. But if Withey does get drawn out a bit and allows Kabongo to get into the lane and get good looks at the rim more consistently, it's nice to know that a zone would be effective. It's all speculation, but that's what makes it fun.

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