UCLA head basketball coach Ben Howland has no choice, but to stick with a zone defense; at least until the Bruins figure out how to effectively play man-to-man. I’ve seen every broadcast game of the Bruins this season, and made the trip to Brooklyn to watch them live in the Legends Classic. What I’ve seen is a pretty talented group of kids who need a LOT of work on man-to-man defense.
Great team man-to-man defense is a thing of beauty. When ran correctly and with efficiency, there is a high degree of on ball pressure and off ball denial within man-to-man that can be stifling. When you add sound “help” principles and throw in a tweak like doubling the post, a man-to-man defense is the most demanding, but it’s the most difficult to score on. There’s a psychological aspect to it as well. A strong man-to-man defense playing team can pump individual players up as they are lauded for great defensive plays. At the same time, a man-to-man defense can progressively “tighten the screws” on an offense as opposing players wear down.
Unfortunately, our Bruins are not ready yet to run man-to-man. Coach Ben Howland has seen this and adapted by employing a pretty basic 2-3 zone. No doubt he has seen way more than the average fan and knows the teams’ deficiencies to the letter. To me the most obvious deficiencies are that the freshmen aren’t ready and the Wears aren’t physical enough. Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad in particular seem to get lost pretty easily in man-to-man. Tony Parker has been buried on the bench or hampered by injury, so he’s even further behind. Jordan Adams seems the most proficient, but even he makes technical mistakes too often.
On the plus side, Norman Powell and Larry Drew II can play man-to-man defense, the Wears are at least savvy enough to, and the freshmen are definitely talented and certainly can learn. Getting them to a level where they are playing efficient man-to-man for at least part of each game is key, and this needs to be happening soon. Having them do so for great swaths of time in games is critical long term, and should be in evidence by February 1st, in my opinion, if they are to make a strong run in the tourney. Why? Because at the end of the day, teaching and perfecting man-to-man is Coach Howlands’ greatest strength. If we are going to have a great season, we need him comfortable and at his best, too.
So look for zone for the next twelve games, but pray that we see the team slowly weaning off playing it successfully. If that happens, we could be in for a fun ride. If it doesn’t, we may be faced with one more season of mediocrity. At least that’s what it sez here.