Sun Devils Bring Pesky Defense to Haas After Near Miss Against UCLA

Photo: Freshman Guard Emerson Murray (right), who was a Canadian Junior National team member, has played  in 19 of Cal's 21 games.
Jeff Totten/File
Freshman Guard Emerson Murray (right), who was a Canadian Junior National team member, has played in 19 of Cal's 21 games.

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Having not faced consistent man-to-man for two games, the Cal men's basketball team has succeeded on its trek through the danger zone.

Continuing the trend of the last two games, the Bears will face another refined zone defense when they take on Arizona State tonight at 8 p.m. at Haas Pavilion.

After sweeping the Oregon schools last weekend, Cal (12-9, 5-4) looked effective in breaking the respective zones that it faced, but it will face one of the conference's most effective alignments when the Sun Devils (9-12, 1-8) take the floor tonight.

While struggling in conference play because of a truly tepid offense, Arizona State has one of the more structurally sound defenses in the Pac-10. That defense almost keyed an upset of UCLA last weekend, but the Bruins prevailed 73-72 in overtime.

Ever since the arrival of coach Herb Sendek in 2006, the Sun Devils have frustrated countless teams with a matchup zone defense predicated on limiting passing and penetration and designed to force contested jump shots.

ASU plays what is commonly referred to as a 3-2 matchup zone. Each player is assigned to a particular area (like in any traditional zone), but instead of operating in a traditional rotation, the Sun Devils always have one defender on the ball.

While one defender guards the ball, the other four protect their assigned areas, making it difficult for the ball-handler to pass (as all nearby areas are guarded by the other defenders) or penetrate (because of the likelihood of running into a double or triple-team).

When the defense works, the opposing team's post players are effectively neutralized because of the inability to get the ball into the post. This usually results in a lot of low-percentage perimeter shots.

The primary drawback of the matchup zone, however, is properly positioning the defense to prevent offensive rebounds.

The Bears picked up 15 offensive boards in their 65-61 victory over Arizona State in January, but coach Mike Montgomery thinks that is an area of the game where they can still improve.

"We can rebound the ball better," Montgomery said. "We're not a great offensive rebounding team though there are games where we've been good."

Conversely, Cal has become a more zone-oriented team in the last couple of games after playing predominantly man defense this season.

The zone was tactically deployed in Thursday's 85-57 blowout against Oregon State - Montgomery figured Oregon State would use smaller players to try and beat Cal's zone, which would give Cal a significant size advantage on offense - but Montgomery has found benefits of zoning teams, primarily because of the team's lack of depth, regardless of the opponent.

"We can't really afford to get in foul trouble," Montgomery said. "People have not shot many foul shots against us (when we're in zone), so I guess we're not as aggressive in zone as we would be in man. You just don't expose yourself to foul trouble as much. It's more fatiguing in man."

Even with the progress that the zone has made, the coach assured that the Bears are ready to switch to man if their zones show any weakness.

"We work on man everyday in practice and we work on man to prepare for other teams," he said. "If the zone works, then we're likely to stay with it. If it doesn't then we've got to be able to play man."


Gabriel Baumgaertner covers men's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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