Zone defenses taking over the Pac-10
Pac-10 basketball teams are in the zone.
Once dominated by man-to-man defense, the conference has become home to an array of zones, from Arizona State’s 2-3 matchup zone to Oregon State’s 1-3-1 and a few hybrid schemes.
The trend may be a symptom of the Pac-10’s overall weakness this season, because the league lacks point guards who can dissect zones and shooters who can score over them.
It may also be a sign of desperation as coaches try to plug the defensive holes created by graduation and NBA departures. In other cases, it’s simply an effort to limit foul trouble on thin, inexperienced rosters.
“There’s a lot of reasons, but a lot of teams are playing zone in our league this year,” California coach Mike Montgomery said. “Maybe it’s easier for them to stay competitive, stay in games and keep themselves out of foul trouble. They’re probably trying to buy some time, buy a win or two, by going to a zone.”
Even USC coach Kevin O’Neill, a man-to-man diehard, has dabbled in zones this season – for seven possessions, with mixed results.
“Nobody scored on our first possessions, but we gave up three offensive rebounds,” O’Neill said. “It may be something that we look at a little more. I know building a program, I want to build it playing man-to-man defense because that’s what I believe in.”
O’Neill went against his long-held principles because, with a short bench, he wanted to avoid fouls. Arizona State coach Herb Sendek had a different reason for turning to a zone midway through his 8-22 debut season four years ago.
Sendek watched as his team struggled to guard quicker players, especially on the perimeter. His zone became a method to disguise the Sun Devils’ flaws, and he said recently that he never dreamed he’d become known as a zone guru.
“It happened the first year because we were desperate, and it was a complete shot in the dark,” he said.
Sendek’s brainstorm evolved into a calling card. As he began to recruit more talented players to Tempe, Sendek plugged them into his scheme, with brilliant results.
Last year, with eventual NBA draft picks James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph clogging the passing lanes, the Sun Devils led the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense (42.1 percent) and finished second in scoring defense (61.1 points per game) in conference play.
Even without Harden and Pendergraph, the Sun Devils remain among the nation’s stingier teams. They concede 58.9 points per game, seventh in the nation.
When Pac-10 coaches talk zone defense, they invariably mention ASU’s matchup zone and how difficult it is to attack. But Sendek, a native of Pittsburgh, shrugged off suggestions that he’s become a trendsetter on the West Coast.
“I think coaches by and large do what they do,” Sendek said. “They have their systems.”
This year, more Pac-10 coaches have been working zones into their defensive arsenals.
UCLA coach Ben Howland is so defense-minded that he often gets into a crouch, arms extended, as he’s exhorting his players to defend. For most of his career, Howland has believed in man-to-man defense, but he’s increasingly turned to a zone as the Bruins have struggled with the loss of numerous players to the NBA.
The Bruins allow 68.2 points per game in conference play, a shade higher than last season. They limit opposing shooters to 44.9 percent from the field, an improvement over 46.8 percent a year ago, but Howland hasn’t been impressed.
“I don’t think our zone is that great, to be honest with you,” Howland said Tuesday on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference. “It’s better than our man (defense) had been. That’s why we’re using it.
“It’s allowed us to have a chance to win games,” Howland said. “Bottom line, I still believe that man-to-man is the best way to play.”
Statistics shed little light on whether the Pac-10’s zones have been effective. Six of the 10 squads are scoring more points in conference play than they did a year ago, but eight of 10 have lower field goal percentages.
Oregon coach Ernie Kent said his Ducks have played more zone defense than ever. He has two theories for the proliferation of zones across the league.
“Number one, the conference is so young, I think you see a lot of slippage all over the place in relation to man-to-man defense,” Kent said. “Number two, I don’t think it’s a great shooting conference this year. I think over the last couple of years, so many great players have gone out of this conference, to the NBA early or through graduation, that it’s taken a lot of the skilled shooters out of the conference.”
With some notable exceptions – Syracuse under Jim Boeheim and Temple in John Chaney’s reign – zone defenses often are viewed as a gimmick, or evidence that a coach doesn’t believe his players can guard opponents one-on-one.
Not surprisingly, Pac-10 coaches disagree with those perceptions.
“I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “It’s a sign of getting the most out of their team.”
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