More teams seem to be switching to the zone defense over man-to-man and that might increase given the success of Washington and first-year coach Mike Hopkins, a disciple of zone guru Jim Boeheim at Syracuse.
When Dana Altman arrived at Oregon in 2010, only one other men’s basketball team in what was then the Pac-10 played some variation of a zone defense.
From Los Angeles to the Bay Area and from the Northwest to Arizona, everyone – with the exception of Oregon and Oregon State — relied exclusively on a man-to-man defensive scheme.
Fast-forward eight years, and the popularity of the zone defense, which was once considered a gimmicky strategy employed by teams with inferior athletes, has expanded to every corner of the conference.
“Teams are changing up,” Altman said. “They see the advantage of playing zone at least for a while. … Everybody except Arizona has got some variation of it.”
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And it seems as if Arizona has caught on.
Pac-12 basketball analyst Corey Williams, who played four years (1992-96) for the Wildcats, had to do a double-take to make sure he saw what he thinks he saw.
It couldn’t possibly be true, but he watched his former team fall back defensively into a zone defense during an 82-74 loss to UCLA.
“It shocked me,” Williams said, laughing. “Arizona went zone for a few possessions and the first thing I noticed was I could tell it’s not something they practice because it was horrible. UCLA scored right away, and I don’t think they went back to it.
“I know (coach) Sean Miller is a man-to-man principle guy, but sometimes you got to try something when your team isn’t playing well. I give him a lot of credit for trying something new, because for as long as I can remember, Arizona plays man defense all the time. … It’s just another example of the changes in today’s game.”
Theories abound to explain the proliferation of the zone defense.
“I think it has something to do with the rule changes,” said Arizona associate head coach Lorenzo Romar, who employed a variation of the zone during his final seasons at Washington. “If you barely touch someone, there’s a foul. No hand-checking. There’s no five-seconds call.
“So teams just drive you and put the ball on the floor and it’s made it a little more difficult on defenses. The zone helps you keep guys out of the lane.”
Pac-12 analyst Mike Montgomery, who built a Hall of Fame coaching career at Stanford and California, attributes the rising popularity of the zone defense to the increasing attrition of players via transfer or early entry into the NBA draft.
The frequent roster churn, Montgomery argued, makes it difficult for coaches to maintain player continuity over several years and teach sound man-to-man defensive principles.
“In my opinion, it takes two good years to teach man-to-man defense,” Montgomery said. “It really does. To teach kids how to slide, how to close and all of that stuff – two years. With the zone you can put it in pretty quick and cause people problems.”
This season, No. 17 Arizona sees a lot of zone defenses because few teams have the size to combat the Wildcats’ frontline of 7-footers Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.
“A zone can protect you when you don’t have size,” Williams said. “Basically, you’re rolling the dice and hoping there aren’t enough good knock-down shooters in the Pac-12. There’s tons of athletes in this conference, but you don’t have knock-down shooters.”
And the No. 1 reason teams play zone is to protect a player who is in foul trouble.
“That’s a big reason,” Altman said. “You can extend the game.”
For years Altman has employed a defense in which it’s not uncommon for Oregon to start a possession in a zone or a zone press before morphing back into a man-to-man defense.
Oregon ranks first in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed (69.6), followed by Oregon State, Utah and Washington. OSU and UW are also considered zone teams.
“There’s a lot of coaches that swore they would never do it, but you turn on the TV now and you’ve got 75 percent of the teams in the conference who has some form of zone,” Williams said. “Eight of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 will zone it up in a game.”
Despite the rise in popularity of the zone, Washington is still the only team in the Pac-12 that relies solely on the defensive tactic, largely because first-year coach Mike Hopkins is a zone disciple who learned from Jim Boeheim at Syracuse.
But that could be changing.
“As a result of Mike doing well with the zone and players who didn’t win last year, other coaches are going to say, ‘Hey, this is pretty good stuff,’ ” Montgomery said. “So you’re going to see more than that.
“It’s all about trends. When Michigan State won the (1979) NCAA tournament with that zone of theirs and Magic Johnson, the next year you saw a lot more zone. The game is constantly evolving and reinventing itself.”
Percy Allen’s week 9 Pac-12 power rankings
|1. Arizona (20-6, 10-3)||In his ninth season with the Wildcats Sean Miller is on the verge of winning his fifth Pac-12 regular-season title. Legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson had 11.||At Arizona St.|
|2. Oregon (17-8, 7-5)||Since Dana Altman’s arrival in 2010-11, the Ducks are 40-15 (.717) in February. Oregon is 5-1 in its past six games and eyes third straight Pac-12 title.||At USC|
|3. Arizona State (19-6, 7-6)||It’s Wildcats Week in Tempe. Bobby Hurley is 0-5 and still looking for his first win against rival Arizona. ASU has three-game winning streak.||Arizona|
|4. UCLA (17-8, 8-5)||Last week’s 82-74 win at then-No. 13 Arizona looks great on the postseason resume. Bruins seek revenge this week against Oregon State and Oregon.||Oregon State|
|5. Colorado (15-10, 7-6)||With a victory Thursday, Buffaloes would capture their first ever four-game winning streak during the regular season against Pac-12 opponents.||At WSU|
|6. Utah (15-9, 7-6)||Allowed an average of 51.5 points in a pair of wins last week against Stanford (75-60) and California (77-43). Utes are 5-2 in past seven games.||At UW|
|7. Washington (17-8, 7-5)||Big fall for UW, which was No. 1 last week. Huskies can’t afford to lose any of their four remaining home games if they’re going to make the NCAAs.||Utah|
|8. USC (17-9, 8-5)||Bad time for a three-game losing streak with Oregon coming to town. However, since an 88-81 defeat to UW, the Trojans have won past five home games.||Oregon|
|9. Stanford (13-13, 7-6)||After big win at Washington last month, the Cardinal is 0-4 on the road. And Stanford didn’t put up much of a fight last week during road losses.||At California|
|10. Oregon State (13-11, 5-7)||Big wins last week against UW and WSU, but Beavers seek their first Pac-12 road win. They’ve dropped 19 straight on road over past two seasons.||at UCLA|
|11. California (8-18, 2-11)||Golden Bears have had moments of growth during a challenging season, but they relapsed severely during Saturday’s 77-43 loss at Utah.||Stanford|
|12. Wash. St. (9-15, 1-11)||Outscored by combined 59 points in two road losses last week. Scored season-low 57 points in defeat at Oregon minus leading scorer Robert Franks (knee).||Colorado|