When it comes to devotees of man-to-man defense, few coaches are as stubbornly dedicated as Tad Boyle.
Yet as he prepared for his seventh season at the helm of the University of Colorado men's basketball program, Boyle decided he wasn't so stubborn as to limit the strengths of the deep and versatile team he'd oversee in 2016-17.
Deep and versatile, yes. Big? Not necessarily. And so Boyle, who in the past often looked as if he was trying to swallow sour milk when asked about using a zone defense, decided this year's Buffaloes might require an altered approach.
"To get our best players on the floor this year, there's going to be times when we're going to have to play small. And when you're small against teams that might be big, zone might be valuable," Boyle said. "It's more based on our personnel than anything else. Because there are times when we'll have four perimeter players and one post player on the floor.
"If we're playing against a team that has two 7-footers, or a 7-footer and a 6-10 guy and they're beating us to death inside, you have to make them beat you from the outside. That's the thought process."
The Buffs generally employed two post players throughout last season, with Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon starting and reserve Tory Miller rotating between their spots. With 6-foot-10 Scott gone, the only frontcourt player expected to join Gordon and Miller in the rotation is 6-foot-10 freshman Lucas Siewert, whose game at this stage is more akin to a stretch-four than a rugged interior defender.
Shifting more frequently to a zone defense also could be helpful to CU's array of long-armed, quick-footed wing players. For instance, many of the down games experienced by point guard Dominique Collier in an up-and-down campaign last year began with Collier getting into early foul trouble, often when getting caught reaching in against quicker guards. With help surrounding him in a zone set, Collier won't be as isolated at the point.
"It should benefit us on offense too, because we can get out and run on teams," Collier said. "With zone, we get to fly around and get steals. I know I look forward to it, being active at the top and looking for steals. They always tell us to be aggressive at the top of the zone."
The Buffs ranked fourth in the Pac-12 Conference last year in overall defensive field goal percentage (.418) but finished eighth in defensive 3-point percentage (.355), a reflection of the Buffs' strength in the middle with Scott and Gordon. They also finished just ninth in the league with 5.2 steals per game, a number that needs to improve with capable players like Collier, George King, Derrick White, and Josh Fortune roaming the perimeter.
Boyle is quick to note it's not as if the Buffs haven't practiced zone in the past, but typically it was more in preparation for a zone-based opponent than part of the Buffs' game plan. The offseason staff addition of assistant Bill Grier, who coached zone extensively during a longtime stint as an assistant at Gonzaga as well as during his time as the head coach at San Diego, should help the Buffs become more proficient at concepts that have been afterthoughts in the past.
Expect to see more zone utilized during nonconference play as the Buffs prepare for the Pac-12 schedule.
"Coach Grier has coached zone, and he has some new ideas, some new thoughts," Boyle said. "If we are going to play it, we have to be better at it. In the past, we kind of put it in to kind of play against in practice. Now we're spending more time on it."