Danger Zone Any team that can't handle the pressure of a zone defense may find itself run off the road before it ever gets to the Final Four

March 16, 1998

If you play man, you are one," Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril
said before leaving Princeton, and few college players today
would disagree. Nothing puts a scowl on a player's face faster
than orders to go into a pantywaist, arm-waving,
go-to-your-area, awwww-wachoomeanIcan'tcheckhim zone.

Nothing, that is, except having to face a zone. That's why,
following a regular season marked by the most effective
deployment of zone defenses in a dozen years--a regular season
in which even Indiana coach and man-to-man absolutist Bob Knight
ordered his team into a zone--we're likely to see plenty of them
over the next three weeks. The team that triumphs in San Antonio
will probably have to face and beat a zone somewhere along the
way. "I've heard a lot of coaches say they don't like playing
zones," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "Well, a coach likes
to win, and if it takes a zone to win, he'll like it fine."

When the NCAA legislated the chippie 19'9" three-pointer in
1986, the zone looked dead. After all, it's the defense least
able to challenge an outside shooter. But coaches are now
recruiting such quick players that some zones can shift and
still recover in time to challenge the three-point shot. And
where once coaches went to zones for any number of narrow
tactical purposes--to protect a player in foul trouble, to hide
a lousy individual defender, to keep a big man closer to the
basket--now they may do so for no reason other than "to give a
different look," as they say in the trade. "We've used more
zones this year and last than ever before," says North Carolina
coach Bill Guthridge. "It's for a change of pace." And what
else, coach? "To give a different look."

A zone applies brake pads to a game's wheels. It forces offenses
to put their guards up, literally and figuratively. Played well,
particularly in combination with full-court pressure, a zone can
pare an offense's 35-second possession down to perhaps 20
workable seconds. Without sound backcourt decision-making, few
college teams can be consistently productive in that amount of
time.

In addition, as the drive-and-dish school of basketball becomes
more and more popular, some teams find that their backcourt
defenders are wanting in speed. Playing zone is a prudent
alternative to trying to check a jitterbugging point guard
man-to-man, or trying to stop several perimeter players who can
put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. "More teams
than ever have more than one great athlete," says Kentucky coach
Tubby Smith. "You're seeing more zone because it's tough to
control great athletes who are always trying to take you off the
dribble."

For those coaches who have long believed in the zone, its return
provides a chance to say, I told you so. "They booed us at
Louisville last year for playing a zone," says Temple coach John
Chaney, whose Owls play a defense so nettlesome that it gives a
different look virtually every trip down the floor. "Guess what
Louisville is playing now?" (The 12-20 Cardinals aren't going
anywhere this postseason, but in December they beat Kentucky,
the second seed in the South, with an old-fashioned 2-3.) "And
Cincinnati's Mr. Man-to-Man," Chaney says, referring to Bearcats
coach Bob Huggins, "he's playing zone, too!"

Chaney is entitled to crow, given the number of chesty opponents
who have entered his Twilight Zone and never come back. Though
the Owls had stifled favored NCAA tournament opponents in recent
years--Purdue and Oklahoma State in 1991, Vanderbilt in
'93--Mississippi coach Rob Evans played down his concern about
the Rebels' first-round date last spring with Temple and its
matchup zone, a protean alignment that Chaney has been refining
since his days as a high school coach in Philadelphia in the
1960s. All Ole Miss had to do was hit a few threes, Evans said,
and the zone would crumble. But by the end of the Rebels' 62-40
loss, Evans had joined the ranks of those who have discovered
the hard way that Temple's zone isn't so much a defense as a
force of nature.

"We put up stop signs," says Chaney. "Here's a hospital zone.
There's a school zone. Speed limit, 15 miles per hour. It's a
terrible, nasty, ugly-looking defense, but I'm going to keep
playing it."

In a game of, say, 75 turns on defense, the Owls may play 50
variations of their zone. As a result, opposing guards must
stroke their chins and riddle out what lies before them on
virtually every trip down the floor. Chaney usually packs his
defense tight early in a game, conceding shots over it. This
keeps his guys from picking up early fouls. (Chaney
automatically benches a player if he picks up his second foul in
the first half.) After halftime he extends the zone two or three
feet and encourages more trapping and gambling.

Throughout the game, Chaney turns usual defensive logic--big
guys across the back, little ones out front--on its head. He
might stick 6'4" point guard Pepe Sanchez at the back of a
1-3-1, because Sanchez has the speed and anticipation to
challenge jump shooters in the corners. Or Chaney might deploy
at the top of the zone 6'8", spider-armed Lynard Stewart, who
against Fresno State on Dec. 9 galloped off with four steals and
scored each time. Or Chaney might not make either of those
moves. Which is what makes playing the Owls so maddening.

Temple's defense even has its own vernacular. Members of the Owl
family speak of how they "defend the second pass," the pass two
moves ahead that they try to anticipate and intercept. They
speak of the "body stop," which is what a defender should lay on
an opponent who has entered his zone, in accordance with
Temple's man-to-man principles. They instinctively scream,
"Pickup, matchup!"--a call to go man-to-man and deny any pass
the moment the dribbler picks up the ball. They speak of "the
rover," the player at the back of the 1-3-1 who must quickly get
out to the corners. And there's Chaney's ceaseless mantra,
"Recovery!"

"You're going to get beat," Chaney says, "but are you going to
recover to a better position with your next slide? Recovery is
the most important thing in defense, as it is in life." That
allusion is no accident, for tragedy has struck Temple three
times over the past two years: Assistant coach Jim Maloney died
of a heart attack in May 1996; athletic director Dave O'Brien's
nine-year-old son, Michael, died in a car accident last August;
and Marvin Webster Jr., the Owls' sophomore center, died of a
heart attack a week after Michael O'Brien's death. The zone is
the one defense with a philosophy encrypted in it, especially as
taught by Chaney, whose approach to the game is that of a Zen
master, albeit not a very serene one.

Beating Temple requires a holistic sensibility. "You needed to
be able to see the entire defense when you made a pass," says
Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe, who faced the Temple zone as a
guard at Rutgers in the '80s. "You had to see the guy guarding
you and where the help was coming from."

Other keys to unshackling a team from Chaney's chains: Try to
get the ball into the lane, just below the foul line. Make your
threes, even if you have to launch them from 22 rather than 20
feet. And hope your guards play with poise. Temple lost seven of
eight games against Atlantic 10 archrival Massachusetts between
1994 and '97, when either Edgar Padilla or Carmelo Travieso (or
both) were in the Minutemen's backcourt. This season, with
neither of those steady hands around, UMass was swept in its two
meetings with the Owls. "You end up playing their game," said
Minutemen sophomore point guard Monty Mack after a 61-47 loss to
Temple on Feb. 3. "If you've never played against it before,
there's no way to prepare for it."

Despite all the evidence of the zone's effectiveness, most
college players don't like playing it because they want to get
busy auditioning for the NBA, where the zone is banned. Then
there's that matter of testosterone. "Kids like taking the
responsibility of saying, 'I'm going to stop this guy,' and in a
zone a player doesn't get that feeling of individual
accomplishment," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "But I'm sure
players at Temple get that feeling. If Temple spent as much time
playing man-to-man, they'd do well at that too."

In fact the biggest reason that today's player doesn't like
zones is probably that he can't consistently beat them. "Against
a zone he tends to stymie himself," says Oklahoma State coach
Eddie Sutton. "He doesn't move, doesn't pass and therefore
doesn't score." That's hardly surprising, given that he doesn't
see zones in the AAU and summer-camp worlds in which he is
immersed before coming to campus. Meanwhile the skills (passing
and shooting) and attitude (patience) required to beat a zone
are in diminishing supply. As the game boils down more and more
to two shots--the dunk and the three--the medium-range jumper,
so often available to teams willing to work surgically against a
zone, is a vanishing art.

"These days zones hurt people not necessarily because of the way
they're played but because they're just not played very often,"
says Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who has deployed the defense as
well as any coach this season. "Teams don't work on zone offense
every day in practice. The notion that you're not a man's man if
you play a zone is ridiculous. Sometimes we let our egos get in
the way of our brains."

So we should keep in mind the zone as we head to San Antone, and
remember a lesson of the Alamo: All the swagger in the world
won't necessarily keep you from losing.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 1. In a Temple-UMass game on March 1, two defenders in the Owls' matchup zone trap Minutemen forward Chris Kirkland. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 2. The trap forces Kirkland to pass away from the hoop to guard Jonathan DePina. Lynn Greer leaves the trap to follow the pass. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 3. Greer, joined by Quincy Wadley, advances on DePina to spring the Owls' second trap of this UMass possession. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 4. As three other Owls collapse on UMass's frontcourtmen to prevent a pass to the post, Greer slaps the ball from DePina's hands. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 5. Temple tightens the vise down low as Wadley snares the loose ball to get credit for one of the Owls' 16 steals in the game. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER 6. Wadley begins dribbling toward the Massachusetts basket, and the rest of the Owls shift into fast-break mode. [Chris Kirkland, Lynn Greer, Jonathan DePina, Quincy Wadley, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER PINNED DOWN The Terrapins' zone smothered Tar Heels playmaker Ed Cota in Maryland's upset win. [Ed Cota and two others in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO WILDCAT DRILLER With deadeye shooters like Miles Simon in the backcourt, Arizona makes most opponents think twice about going into a zone. [Miles Simon and others in game]

GO CONFIGURE

2-3 This is your basic YMCA zone set, which works best for
rebounding but worst for perimeter defense, because a couple of
ball reversals by the offense usually lead to an open shot. The
2-3 is Syracuse's standard alignment, and it's the zone against
which Kentucky shot just 20% from three-point range in the
second half of its loss to Louisville on Dec. 27. North Carolina
uses the 2-3 a bit, too, and "does a great job of playing the
percentages, trying to get certain guys to shoot early," says
Clemson coach Rick Barnes.

3-2 Michigan State plays man-to-man most of the time, but the
Spartans employed the 3-2 alignment extensively during victories
this season over Purdue and Iowa. "We use a 3-2 instead of a 2-3
because it gives us better matchups on the perimeter," says
Michigan State assistant coach Tom Crean. "You can put more of
your quicker people out on top for ball pressure."

1-3-1 This set is most effective against squads with small
guards and poor ball handlers. Teams often half-court trap out
of it, forcing a faster pace and quicker shots. Kansas, with its
size--including the long arms of Ryan Robertson at the zone's
top--uses the 1-3-1 well. But over the years no school has
played it better than Temple.

1-2-2 A team that wants to stifle the biggest threat to a
zone--the pass into the high post--plays this. Last week, UNLV
used a 1-2-2 to beat Utah, Fresno State and New Mexico and win
the WAC tournament. Maryland, in its Jan. 14 overtime upset of
North Carolina, used a 1-2-2 to disguise the defensive
deficiencies of guards Terrell Stokes, who's at least 10 pounds
heavier than last year, and Sarunas Jasikevicius, who has never
been very quick.

HOW TO BUST A ZONE

FROM OUTSIDE "We haven't seen a total of 30 minutes of zone
defense all season long," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "Some
of that may have to do with the fact that we shoot the ball so
well."

AT ITS EDGES The philosophy of Iowa coach Tom Davis, which he
first implemented at Boston College in the late '70s, is to use
perimeter bounce passes to force a zone to shift, stretch and
ultimately snap.

IN THE MIDDLE Kentucky's Antoine Walker flashed into the high
post again and again during the 1996 NCAA title game to take
passes and then pitch the ball outside to Tony Delk and Ron
Mercer for three-pointers over Syracuse's 2-3 zone.

OVER THE TOP Try a zone on North Carolina, and one of your guys
on the back line will get backscreened, Vince Carter will
elevate, and Ed Cota will find him with a lob. If you've caught
any TV highlight package since Thanksgiving, you know the result.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)