A lot of high school boys’ basketball teams favor small lineups today, playing three and four guards.
It is a reflection of an evolving sport where, at every level, teams race the ball up court and try to create either a layup or a three pointer.
In December, Hillsborough High School was struggling against those teams, allowing 63.6 points per game. The Raiders contained a roster of long forwards, and they were having trouble covering smaller, faster guards.
With a different kind of team, Hillsborough coach Scott Kallens recognized that he needed to try something new.
The second year coach realized that he had to switch to a 2-3 zone.
“We just came to the conclusion that it gave us the best chance to win,” Kallens said. “We were trying to evaluate what our personnel was and what we were able to do. Match the game plan to our strengths.”
In early January, Kallens made the switch. It did not lead to more victories. Hillsborough is still just 1-9.
But it at least led to better defense.
The Raiders have not allowed more than 61 points in any of their four January games. They gave up just 47 in a loss, 47-34, to Watchung Hills Regional High School on Jan. 8.
Their points allowed per game average has dropped by almost 10 to 54.5 in the first month of 2019.
“That tells me the guys are committed and they want to keep improving,” Kallens said. “We’re just trying to compete with energy.”
The zone is working because Kallens positioned his players in the right spots.
He placed A.J. Strawderman and Brian Chung at the top of the zone. Both players keep ball handlers in front of them.
Adam McCaffery is also a strong man style defender, so he is Kallens’ first substitute for Strawderman or Chung.
“The root of any good defense, zone or man, is the ability to stop players one on one. They do a great job of that,” Kallens said. “A.J. and Brian communicate well and are active.”
In a 2-3 zone, the most important spot is in the middle. There are two defenders up top and two more on the blocks. But there is only one in the middle, so he has to defend creators and rebound the ball.
Jared Smith plays that role in Hillsborough’s starting lineup. Rupak Stephen spells him off the bench. Both players can stop ball, box out and rebound. They are also clear communicators.
“Those guys do a good job,” Kallens said. “Rupak’s best attribute is communication.”
Perimeter and paint defense give the zone a solid foundation. But the two block defenders need to end possessions by rebounding. Dante Walker and Dylan Boczon clean the glass on the blocks for the Raiders.
“Dante’s rebounding numbers have gone way up. He’s not the biggest but he competes incredibly hard,” Kallens said. “Dylan does the same thing.”
The zone is working. But the Raiders are still losing because they are struggling to score.
Hillsborough is good at sharing the ball and creating open looks on offense. Fourteen Raiders players have scored this year. Three are averaging more than seven points per game.
Kallens just does not have that one scorer, or those two scorers, who can make big runs and swing games. He is hoping Walker and Smith become those guys, especially Walker.
“Dante can make a jump shot and is fairly adept at drawing fouls. Plus he’s a good foul shooter,” Kallens said. “The combination should help him score.”
If Hillsborough finds more scoring, it can win more games in the second half of the season.
“That’s the goal,” Kallens said.
But even if that doesn’t happen, Kallens has at least made progress this year. In discovering the zone, he may have found an identity to build a program around.
“You try to establish an identity as a whole town of how Hillsborough plays basketball,” Kallens said. “A lot of youth teams play zone. So the kids come up with a better understanding of how to play those systems. We’ll see what happens over time.”