The Magical Zone

UCLA resembles the team you would think it should be in beating Cal State Northridge Wednesday, 82-56. And it's mostly because of the impact of a zone, on both sides of the floor...

UCLA looks like it will finish somewhere in the middle of the Big West this season, with its win over Cal State Northridge, 82-56, Wednesday night.

Sorry, couldn't resist that.

Looking at the Big West, however, does kind of put UCLA's non-conference performance on the season so far in perspective. In the pre-season conference media poll, UC Irvine, who UCLA should have lost to, was picked to finish third in the conference, Cal Poly, who beat the Bruins, was picked to finish 7th, and Cal State Northridge 8th.

Long Beach State, whom UCLA is scheduled to play December 18th, was picked to finish first. UCLA has about three weeks, then, to see if it can continue to get better and compete for the top of the Big West.

Sorry, again, couldn't resist.

But from a perspective standpoint, that just about does it. One one hand, it was a liberating experience to watch the Bruins play the way you would project this team to play in ushering the Matadors off the court. On the other hand, you have to keep the context fully in mind -- that Northridge is not a good team that was picked to finish eighth out of ten schools in a mid-major conference (the other two picked to finish worse were UC Davis and UC Riverside).

But if were going to focus on the positives, which seems appropriate since there have been so many negatives recently, you have to attribute UCLA's performance Wednesday night to one thing:

The Magical Zone.

Here are some headlines from posts on the BRO Premium Hoops Message Board:

-- "They are much better defensively in a zone."

-- "The Wears look much better on D in the zone."

-- "What's the difference between the game an Cal Poly? Zone."

-- "Gee, zone may be good for this team."

-- "Zone looks good. More energy than any other game."

-- "Zone from the start. Bruins look great!"

There was also the classic: "BRO gameplan going well."

It's amazing that you can have the world summed up for you in the headlines of the BRO message boards, but that's about it.

It was obvious to just about anyone who knows basketball a bit, that this team was built for a zone. Ben Howland seemingly saw it, but had his own reasons for not going to it predominantly -- until this game.

Voila, UCLA resembles the team we think they should be this season.

Resembles is the operative word here because, again, this was Cal State Northridge. But at least this is what the 2012-2013 Bruins should look like against Northridge, not how they looked against its other Big West opponents.

The zone, which is a pretty rudimentary one, is not only perfectly suited for UCLA, it was perfectly suited to to use against Northridge. The Matadors are a poor outside shooting team with an offense predicated mostly on dribble drives. The zone worked exactly as it should, with a non-three-point-shooting team attempting 26 threes on the night, fifteen more than its average, while making only 5 of them. The UCLA zone packed in the middle, collapsed the lanes so Northridge's guards couldn't find much room to penetrate. And then, once the shot went up, UCLA's team rebounding was like a force field on the defensive board, with five players, who are now close to the basket, blocking out. UCLA had a whopping 37 defensive rebounds. orthridge took 73 shots, made 23 of them, so of the 50 shots it missed, UCLA got the rebound 37 times.

That, then, starts UCLA's break on the other end, and the Bruins were able, for the first time this season, to actually mount a good transition game that was good for about 20 of UCLA's 82 points. Northridge, too, complied and followed the script, not rotating back as many defenders as previous opponents off missed shots.

By the end of the game, I had a half-dozen texts from various Bruin fans I know that all said: "Too bad we can't play Northridge every game."

The thing is, UCLA can do as much as it can to force other teams into being Northridge-like. The zone is the key, defensive rebounding is the next key, and then you get a break and a team that resembles what it should. It compacted its zone even more for Northridge, since it was pretty clear the Matadors weren't a great three-point shooting team, and it will probably have to extend its zone out a bit more for teams that can shoot the three. And then alternate with the man defense to keep opposing offenses off-balance. But it definitely has given UCLA the defensive blueprint for the season -- one that seemed pretty obvious in August. Heck, August of 2010.

As we've said, the tragedy here is that UCLA could have been working on the zone since August, during its practice sessions for its trip to China. If it had, by this time the zone would be more than just a rudimentary one. A huge aspect of the season will be how the Bruins can develop and get better in their zone as the season progresses.

There was also one more tragic BRO message board headline: "Sad it took Josh leaving to get Ben to play the zone."

And that truly is a big story line. The fact that Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb left the program in the last few days made Howland go to a zone, recognizing that he has only 8 scholarship players on his roster and would need to do it to keep his players as fresh as possible and to avoid injury (seven if you count Tony Parker injured an unable to play). Smith was made for a zone, and we'll never see just how well he might have flourished in it if he had played 25 minutes a game, been able to limit his fouls and been less winded chasing around defenders, hedging 23 feet from the basket in UCLA's man.

The remaining players, too, individually, are far more suited for a zone. Travis Wear played some of his best defense of the season, with four blocks. In the zone, he doesn't have to move his feet nearly as much, and has his balance, which gives him a base for blocking shots. Kyle Anderson's length was finally exploited, and he had a game-leading three steals, sticking his long arms in seams to snatch passes.

Even beyond initiating a break, the zone had a bigger impact on UCLA's offense. Every player was fresher down the stretch. A big reason UCLA lost an 18-point lead to Cal Poly was that it was gassed with 12 minutes left to play; that wasn't the case against Northridge. The Wears had their legs for their jump shots, the form on Norman Powell's shot was still solid (he hit two late-game three-pointers), the not-quite-in-shape-yet Shabazz Muhammad had energy down the stretch, and Larry Drew looked sharper and more focused.

Drew easily had his best game of the season, and a great deal of that was because he wasn't forced to have to guard the opposing point guard in a man. Northridge's guards are good at breaking down defenders, and Drew, in the zone, wasn't solely responsible for keeping them out of the lane. On the other end of the court, he showed very good vision and passing ability -- late in the game -- and it's not coincidental. When a player doesn't have to expend so much energy on the defensive end it carries over to the offensive end. Drew was still ripping off nice assists late into the night, finishing with 13 against just two turnovers. And many of them weren't just basic passes within the standard flow of the offense, but some that required some considerable vision.

If you're talking about passing, Anderson, too, looked like he was the most comfortable he's been in distributing the ball. His best skill is his passing ability, and this was a step for him in being able to get more acclimated in using it.

We haven't looked at the records, but it had to be one of David Wear's best passing performances, with four assists on the night. Again, you don't want to attribute everything to the zone, but Wear looked so much fresher as the game progressed, and that translated into a sharper, more well-rounded offensive performance.

It's the zone, stupid.

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