Zoning Meeting in Miami

MIAMI - Ask any national college basketball pundit which teams play the best zone defense, and the names Syracuse and Arizona State are likely to come up often in reply. Both squads will face off tomorrow at Noon ET in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament South regional, where the Sun Devils will employ a matchup zone and the Orangemen are known for their trademark 2-3 scheme.

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"Not a lot of teams play it," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim about the matchup zone. "Joe Mullaney probably started it at Providence that I remember back in the east, and Rollie (Massimino, former Villanova had coach) used it obviously to pretty good results.

"It's a good defense. It's a difficult defense to play against. It's a difficult defense to coach. Not many people try it. A few people do. Arizona State plays it the best of anybody right now in college basketball. It's a good defense, a real good defense."

Boeheim naturally wasn't going to tip his hand as to how he plans to combat Arizona State's scheme, but did admit that it is a system that offensively you really need to attack differently than you would a man-to-man or a conventional zone.

"Again, there aren't many match-ups (zones)," he stated. "We've seen a couple match-ups this year but not very good (ones). So it's a little different defense. But we'll try to figure something out to try tomorrow."

While third-year Sun Devils skipper Herb Sendek implemented the matchup zone from the moment he arrived in Tempe, it wasn't his proverbial bread and butter system on defense, and was clearly used out of necessity.

"Our first team at Arizona State found itself in a situation where we had to do something to try to be somewhat competitive," "Sendek recalled, "and so we just started trying to figure something out and really didn't have any idea what we were doing. And over time it has just evolved, and now it's something that we've decided to stick with and play to try to be competitive as possible our first year.

"We thought it was a stopgap, something we thought we had to do that year to keep games as close as we could just to be different. We didn't feel like we could match up with anybody and guard them man-to-man. We thought it was stopgap, that it would be a one-and-done, over-with, done-with type of thing, and by our second year we'd hopefully be going back to play man-to-man because it was what we knew and it was what we'd always coach."

The zone defense isn't a scheme that is widely taught, let alone taught well, at the high school and AAU levels. Thus, there were natural growing pains associated with its introduction to the ASU players.

Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph was faltered that Coach Boeheim "the authority on zones" was so complimentary of a scheme that just a few years ago was hard for the Sun Devils to master.

"When we first had our first practice I think my sophomore year, we spent a good two weeks breaking down how this defense works," Pendergraph commented. "Coach had it down for every position, wherever the ball is at, where everybody should be. At first it took a while because my freshman year we played man and played man all in high school. Everyone that came in played man in high school. You don't really play zone. "Coach emphasizes that it's not really a zone defense. We have man principles and you've got to play defense like you're playing man. It wasn't that hard for guys to adjust and get used to it."

The forward admitted that there can be some confusion at times playing this defense, but that playing hard can negate any miscommunication that occurs on that side of the court.

Sendek also agreed that good hustle is the catalyst of any defensive scheme.

"I've seen teams, including our own, be lazy playing man-to-man, Sendek stated. "You can be lazy playing anything if you want, or you can play whatever defense you choose well. I don't see that as being unique to zone.

"I know on a number of occasions through the years our team has played man-to-man and I've been upset with our effort and energy level from time to time."

Because the matchup zone has become a staple of ASU, Sendek knows that he has to constantly change things up to avoid predictability.

"When other teams showed what they were going to do to try to attack it, it forced us to rethink things, and that continues to this day," he said. "One great thing about our game is there's never a finished product. Your personnel is always changing and the other team's personnel is always changing. So there are always new variables that are introduced as you play the next game. So you're always trying to make things better."

ASU point guard Derek Glasser claimed that the Orangemen's defense is similar to that of ASU's archrival Arizona, but that doesn't necessarily give the Sun Devils an edge.

"They don't have conventional zone, they do little things that are different than any other team that we've played that's played zone," said Glasser of Syracuse. "But we're going to have to execute the game plan for us to win. Coach Sendek is going to game plan together along with other coaches to create open shots for us, and we're just going to have to step up and knock them down.

"We both play zone, so if you look at it, probably the transition games will be hurt a little bit for both of us, because we're a pretty good transition defensive team, and we get back and set up in our zone. But I don't think there's an advantage for either team. You know, we both shoot the ball really well, and it's just going to come down to which team can make more plays."

Long Distance Relationship

Syracuse's Jonny Flynn and ASU's James Harden grew up and played 2,500 miles from each other, but the national AAU circuit during their high school days fostered a strong relationship which exists until today. Case in point, both players along with some of their teammates happened to meet at Miami's famed South Beach and sat down together for dinner.

"We just hung out, relaxed for a little bit, checked out the scene," said Harden. "We didn't talk that much about basketball."

"We just talked about how his year was going, how our year was going, and just really reminiscing on a couple things," Flynn commented.

Will their relationship off the court affect their matchup tomorrow?

"On the court it's different," Harden explained. "I'm sure he feels the same. He wants to win just as much as I do. Off the court it's a friendship, but obviously on the court we both want to win."

"Whenever you play a friend that you're close to or someone that you equate yourself with, it makes the game even bigger," Flynn said. "You don't want to lose to him and have him call you up and rub it in your face how he beat you five years, 10 years, 15 years from now wherever we're playing basketball at. It makes this much game much more important to me and for him."

Flynn also realizes the overall challenge that awaits him and teammates as they play his good friend and the Sun Devil squad.

"A match-up zone is probably the hardest zone to play against because it looks just like a man-to-man zone," explained Flynn, "but they might bump a guy through and send another guy and things like that. I think Coach Boeheim is just a basketball wizard. He knows exactly the positions to put people at so they can play the best basketball and make plans for us to win.

"We're just preparing to have a battle out there, like the Big East or something like that. We know Arizona State is a very capable team and they're a well-coached team, so we've got to go out there tomorrow and play our hearts out."

Overtime Lasting Effects?

Syracuse's six-overtime win against Connecticut in the Big East tournament has been one a main topic of discussion in the college basketball circles ever since the game was played almost ten days ago.

Flynn thinks that this victory signifies much more than just another win in the 2008-09 campaign.

"I think that definitely was a turning point for ourselves," said the Syracuse point guard. "If you look at it from the outside, it was a historic game, six overtimes in the Big East Tournament, Madison Square Garden, the biggest stage in the world. That's history in itself.

"Speaking for the team's sake, we really bonded. We really came together as a team, and you seen it. If a guy fell on the floor, you had the whole team running over. Seton Hall, even though it was bad, a little scuffle, everybody on the team was running over, people had to be held off the bench to keep from coming on the court. I think we gained a lot of team camaraderie from playing in that Big East Tournament, and that's really going to help us in the NCAA's."

Down but Not Out

Another ASU game, another series of bumps and bruises suffered by Derek Glasser.

"Well, I think the elbows (to his face) are because I'm so short that I'm at elbow height," quipped Glasser, "so I think that might be the reason for those. You know, I just try and bring a certain level of toughness to our team and dive on the floor, just make hustle plays for the team, and sometimes that just leads to knocking into people sometimes and getting booed or getting put on the floor. I don't know."

Glasser's head coach admired both his point guard's physical and mental toughness.

"I think he really has demonstrated that exceptionally well down the home stretch of this season," Sendek remarked. "I think all those kinds of things can be contagious. If you're a leader and show a measure of toughness and have grit, that can have a real positive influence on your team."

When Pendergraph was asked if he thinks it's possible that Glasser might lead the country in getting elbowed in the face, he replied with a smile: "Elbows to the face, fouls that don't get called but he's always on the floor somehow, concussions maybe, boos, all that stuff, all those stats that nobody really keeps track of. I bet Derek is probably leading all of them."

Early Bird Special

Tip off for the ASU-Syracuse game is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. Arizona time, a fact that doesn't cause any apprehension in the mind of Harden.

"Yeah, it's really early in the morning, but it's whoever can wake up and be ready to play," aid Harden of the chances of winning Sunday's contest. "You know, early game is no excuse. It's the NCAA Tournament. It doesn't matter what time you're playing. Both teams want to win, so you have to wake up, get up early, get a good breakfast and just be ready to go."

Act Like You've Been There Before

On Selection Sunday Pendergraph stated that even though the NCAA tournament is the biggest stage this group of players has ever appeared on, that its preparation needs to be the same like any other game. In light of the team's win over Temple does he believe this approach helped the team?

"I think it helped us a little bit," Pendergraph acknowledged. "We didn't entirely approach it like another game; we put a little emphasis on it. I think if we approached it like some regular game we would have come out a little flat. But guys had the right mix of things going for them, and I think that's why we came out really well against Temple and I think that will help us again on Sunday, no game jitters or first time jitters. That's all kind of out the window."

"I thought our guys did a good job of keeping their poise and composure," said Sendek of his team's play against Temple, "and made a number of plays that we needed to down the stretch to actually hang on and win the game. We withstood a couple of hard-tempo runs and didn't come unraveled, so I was pleased."

Conference Before Rivalry

ASU and Arizona sport one of the bitterest rivalries in the country. Nonetheless, did Pendergraph and his teammates find themselves rooting against the Wildcats, a team that ironically is also playing here in Miami?

"I feel like it's the PAC-10 against everybody else right now," said the ASU forward. "The rivalries are kind of being shadowed by this big old thing that's called the Tournament. We're rooting for everybody, and I would think they would root for us, too, but when next year comes it's back to the PAC-10 season and all that stuff is going out the window."

A Win isn't Just a Win

A victory over Syracuse, according to Pendergraph, would mean much more than just advancing to the South regional of the NCAA Tournament.

"I think for me it would mean the most out of anything that any team has done in a long time," said Pendergraph who is a senior. "That's getting to the Sweet 16, for any team is a big deal. I mean, especially for us, what our program has been through, and how much better we've gotten the last couple years. I think that would be kind of just another layer of icing on the cake for this year. It would mean a lot."

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