Whatever else Mike Hopkins picked up after over 20 years under Jim Boeheim, the man learned how to play a zone.
The former Syracuse coach-in-waiting guided Washington to executing the zone defense to stifle, discombobulate and generally flummox second-ranked and heretofore undefeated Kansas in a 74-65 win over the Jayhawks in Kansas City.
It really was an impressive sight to see Washington’s rather bold gameplan be played to near perfection and for Kansas to seem so utterly unable to deal with a zone that was giving them free reign inside but chasing them off the 3-point arc.
The Jayhawks’ flagrant weakness right now with Billy Preston sidelined and Silvio De Sousa not yet in Lawrence is the interior play. Udoka Azubuike is a legit five-man, but in the old-school mode that needs a dynamic passer or floor-spacer next to him in the frontcourt.
Against the Huskies’ zone, it was 6-foot-5 LaGerald Vick manning the high post.
It was a relatively high-risk play by Hopkins and Washington as Vick has playmaking ability and heaps of athleticism. It worked for Washington, though, because Vick looked completely uncomfortable having the offense run through him in the middle of the zone more often than not.
Vick scored 28 points, but needed volume to get there, going 12 of 23 from the floor. He posted seven assists, but had four turnovers. Those are good-to-very good numbers, but only when their devoid of context. Washington was begging Vick to tear them apart. They were giving him space and opportunity to put up monster numbers. The Huskies essentially played a shift – playing the percentages that Vick wouldn’t be able to beat them. He proved them right in a way that the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell put perfectly:
Vick was able to get his, but only to a level that Washington was comfortable with in their gameplan. They bet he couldn’t go completely wild, and that wager proved correct.
Washington’s decision-making was no doubt based largely not only on Kansas’ lack of a big man who could carve them up comfortable in a high-low game against the zone, but because the Huskies had to keep Kansas’ shooters in check. The Jayhawks came into the night ninth in the country shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range. Devonte Graham, VIck, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk all shoot better than 40 percent from distance on the year.
Against Washington, the Jayhawks made just 5 of 20 (25 percent) from 3-point range.
It was jarring to see how frequently Kansas just looked unable to solve the zone when Washington had already given them the answer with the way they essentially allowed Vick space to operate. The Jayhawks just couldn’t crack it consistently enough. That’s the brilliance of the move, too though, as forcing the Jayhawks to play through Vick means they weren’t playing through Graham. The preseason All-American took only eight shots and made just one in 40 minutes.
It may not be a blueprint other programs will be able to totally replicate to bottle up Kansas, but it certainly gives them something to think about. It also makes Preston’s return or De Sousa’s arrival that much more pressing. Putting some size in the center of that zone would change the math on how teams could employ it.
Kansas’ weakness this season was clearly its roster construction. Washington was just the first team that was able to fully exploit the vulnerability.