First-year Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger builds teams around a gritty man-to-man defense. Sam Grooms, a junior college transfer, sensed Kruger's passion when full-scale sessions began in October.
“In practice it's as if he wants to get out there and do it with us. He's chopping his feet,” Grooms said. “But to go to zone in spurts has helped us a lot, sort of caught teams off guard. It's a great wrinkle.”
Kruger didn't use that wrinkle much in an overtime loss Saturday at Texas A&M, but it has had some success.
OU's 1-2-2 zone was a key factor late in the first half when the Sooners carved out a 34-33 halftime lead against Kansas. The Jayhawks seized control early in the second half. But for one half OU went toe to toe with a KU team that's been impressive in Big 12 conference play.
“We've played (zone) in short stretches and it's been effective,” Kruger said. “We'll play whatever gets results. We'll probably mix in more and more zone as we go along.”
During his seven years at UNLV, Kruger estimates the Runnin' Rebels played zone “maybe 30 to 40 minutes total” in seven years.
To put that in perspective, UNLV played more than 8,000 minutes in the Kruger era. No complicated algebraic formula is needed to deduce a zone was used about as often as a coach taking a reduction in pay following a subpar season.
But Kruger is relying more on zone at OU. For good reason. The Sooners are pretty good at it.
When playing a zone, rebounding can be a challenge since players don't have a specific player to box out. It also places a premium on players at the top of a zone, players in OU's scheme such as Cameron Clark, Steven Pledger, Carl Blair and Grooms.
“If the ball gets to the middle of a zone it's pretty much over,” Grooms said. “Once the ball gets to the middle I always say you turn into a car dealer because you can pass it any direction like handing out cars.”
Syracuse has lived and died with its legendary zone. Other coaches sometime sprinkle in some zone to protect players in foul trouble or to frustrate-perimeter challenged opponents who rely heavily on their inside game.
“It can be very effective as long as we're active,” said forward Romero Osby. “Having Steve, Carl, Sam and Cam on top, they're really active and have good instincts. For the guys inside we just have to do a lot of talking. It's been good for us.”
As floor generals of OU's offense, Blair and Grooms know firsthand the challenges of playing an effective zone.
“It can really slow things down,” Blair said. “You have to run different plays. Your offensive principles change. You use a lot of the 35 seconds on the (shot) clock.
“I prefer to play man but it's great to be able to play two different styles. It gives teams a little more to worry about. Our zone has really helped us. We've had some good runs when we've played zone.”
OU had some success with a 3-2 zone last season under former coach Jeff Capel. The zone Kruger uses has subtle differences.
Capel's was a matchup zone. In the zone Kruger has installed, each player is assigned specific areas.
“It's not that different,” Pledger said. “It's still the same principles, like knowing where shooters are, dropping back when the ball is opposite you. It has been good for us. But it doesn't matter whether it's man or zone, you have to be active and play hard.”