The book on breaking a zone defense hasn’t changed since Fred Enke was coaching Arizona at Bear Down Gym.
Attack the gaps.
Move the ball quickly.
Beat them down the floor.
Get the ball to the short corner.
Arizona’s Allonzo Trier added another one Thursday night: “You’ve gotta be patient but not tentative.”
The Wildcats were both patient and tentative in Thursday’s 62-53 victory over Oregon State, running so much time off the clock that the game was played in 1 hour 44 minutes, which has got to be the shortest Arizona game since Enke coached at Bear Down Gym.
Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said the tempo “set basketball back to when you were scoring in the 40s and 50s.” It wasn’t immediately clear if he meant scoring 40 or 50 points, or if he was talking about the style of play in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Either way, cracking the Beavers’ matchup zone defense by nine points is the equivalent of beating another team by 19. Five days after losing at Colorado and declaring “I have a hard time reaching our group,” Sean Miller amended that a bit.
“There’s no better learning opportunity than when you fail,” he said.
He compared Arizona’s march to March with that of Duke’s young team and with an Oregon club replacing most of its pieces from the 2017 Final Four. For a Thursday night, off-the-radar game in mid-January — in a game marred by bad shooting percentages — the Wildcats made clear progress.
“It’s not going to go from Level 3 to Level 10,” said Miller. “There’s going to be steps. In my mind, we took steps forward.”
Arizona won’t be able to easily shake its mid-season reputation as an under-achiever, but the NCAA’s Selection Sunday is more than two months away. January is a month of labor in college basketball, and Tinkle, the OSU coach, saw through the numbers in the box score and said “we weren’t able to make plays tonight.”
That’s because Arizona’s roustabout Rawle Alkins led an aggressive defensive effort that contributed to Oregon State’s 39 percent shooting night, with 15 turnovers.
“Their big guys, (Dusan) Ristic, did a really good job of getting physical with our big guys,” Tinkle said.
Haven’t heard that one for a while, have we?
One thing that has been obscured in Arizona’s 13-4 start is that this is a remarkably good shooting team. The Wildcats entered Thursday’s game shooting 50.4 percent, which leads the Pac-12. How good is that? Arizona hasn’t shot 50 percent from the field since 1992.
Translation: It’s Arizona’s defense and demeanor that has been the biggest issue.
UA fans freak out when they hear the word “ZONE,” so much so that it deserves to be capitalized. The way Arizona exited last year’s NCAA tournament against Xavier’s zone led to a summer of discontent in Tucson.
During those summer months, Alkins indicated the Wildcats worked extensively against the zone. “Last year, towards the end of the season, people were saying Arizona’s weakness was the zone,” Alkins said. “In the summer that’s all we prepared for was the zone.”
Is it a big part of the UA’s daily practices?
“Yes,” he said.
When the Oregon Ducks play at McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, you’ll see the ZONE again.
“Teams are slowing the games down against us,” said Trier. “They’re taking time on offense, with long possessions. They’re even pressing us a little bit to slow us down. We’re working on it in practice; we’re doing the right things.”
This mid-season slog isn’t any revelation. Even Lute Olson’s best teams played without spirit and intensity several times each season, and Olson didn’t hold back any more than Miller did last week at Colorado.
In fact, when Arizona lost 100-92 at a bad 6-10 Pitt team on Jan. 27, 1990 — Miller, a sophomore point guard was injured and sitting on the Pitt bench as a redshirt — Olson lost it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as frustrated on the bench as I was today,” he said, as the Wildcats gave up 100 points in a regulation game for the first time in his UA days. “I was trying to locate someone who would go in and battle. We were lollygagging.”
The Lollygaggers used that tongue-lashing well; they then went 9-0 in the second half of the Pac-10 season to tie Oregon State at 15-3 for the conference championship.
Can Lollygaggers II be similarly inspired?
“We’re a work in progress, we’re improving,” Miller said Thursday. “I wasn’t looking to jump off any bridge after our last game. … We’re going to get there, it’s just a matter of fighting the good fight.”