Feb 25, 2012; Tucson, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Ben Howland gestures to the officials in the second half of a game against the Arizona Wildcats at the McKale Center. The Wildcats won 65-63. Mandatory Credit: Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE

UCLA Basketball: What is the zone and why Ben Howland should employ it?

Here at GJB, we like to be objective. While we hold grudges, we also know when to give credit where credit is due.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, welcome to Go Joe Bruin, home of the best UCLA sports blog on the Interwebz and absolute haters of Bruinsnation, a collective action website meant to harm UCLA in anyway possible.)

Because this lovely post by Bruinsnation showed up on my doorstep this morning, and “lovely” is not meant to be sarcastic (which is probably the only time I use “lovely” except when I’m talking about my mother).

The post highlights some key reasons to use a zone defense, and hits the nail in the head with every bullet point. First, one of these points relates to UCLA’s poor conditioning on the court, a factor highlighted by resident GJB bad-ass Justin Hsueh. The zone combats such poor conditioning:

To play in a tournament with back to back games the players will need to rest more. Zone is much easier to play than man to man. Maybe the most obvious victims of being tired are the Wear twins, as Howland said after the last game.

Accurate. The zone is easier because it doesn’t require the movement that man defense forces. Keeping up step for step with a defender forces you to fight through screen after screen and tire out quickly, while also running up and down in a half-court set. In a zone defense, you are responsible for a certain area of the court and some help defense when a teammate moves from his position to take the further edge of his part of the court. For example, if a player moves from the far left side of the court to the far right side, the guard playing the right wing will pick up the ball-handler while the left guard gets a break (at least, in a 2-3 zone, where two guards play the perimeter and three forwards and a center play underneath the basket and the mid-range game). Imagine only having to guard 1/5 of the court as opposed to wherever the hell your man is running to? If UCLA’s squad is suffering from poor conditioning, this will help a ton.

And then there’s the part about Josh Smith, the worst conditioned player on the team, playing a huge role on defense:

UCLA is a better team with Josh Smith on the court. He attracts so much attention on offense alone that he changes the game. But that is not all Josh attracts. Josh attracts fouls and every team knows you drag Josh out of the paint with his man to (best case) draw a foul on him or (worse case) tire him out. Either way the opponent’s win. In a zone these problems are reduced as he has to guard a spot down low, not a man outside where he will reach.

Again, the dude is as on point as can be. Josh Smith is a big guy, and teams have an easy time drawing him outside the paint to pound us inside. The lack of help defense from the opposing offense spreading the floor is incredibly annoying. A 2-3 zone lets Smith stay down low while the guards can, essentially, funnel the defenders to Smith, letting him take care of ball-handlers coming to him, as opposed to him running his ass off to get to the ball-handler. The inside defense has been horrible late in games this season, and that’s partly due to the fact that bigs (read: Josh Smith) get gassed easily.

Of course, the zone has its deficiencies. The corners are left almost entirely wide open due to the two perimeter bigs in a 2-3 zone having to cover the elbows and mid-range baseline shots (and the baseline also takes a beating against the zone, too). Even more, a true point guard, one that penetrates defenses at will, breaks down the zone with ease because it helps to draw bigs out of their area and also forces the defense to collapse since more help defense is required. This allows for better floor spacing on offense and even creates open shots left and right.

But the zone also masks defensively-deficient players. The Wear Twins would obviously be the biggest beneficiaries, while the conditioning — an inhibitor to UCLA’s defense, and a creator of those deficiencies — would be combated.

What that does is helps our offense late in games, too. Too many times has UCLA jacked up shot after shot deep into the second half, and that’s all due to poor conditioning (it takes significantly less energy to throw up shots than it does to drive and kick and move the ball better). Saving stamina as a result of the zone leads to cleaner offenses and less sloppy play when the ball is in UCLA’s court. (Wrong sport analogy, but work with me here, folks.)

Obviously, the zone is a bit of a cop-out and one that coaches really hate deferring to because it means they’re desperate. But sometimes, you’ve got to swallow your pride to have the best chance to win.

Ben Howland, swallow your pride.

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Tags: Basketball Ben Howland Josh Smith Zone Defense

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