Cal likely to face even more zone defense against young Wyoming side

Wyoming has lost quite a bit from last season's NCAA Tournament team, but those losses mean that the Cowboys will likely depend on the zone to defend Cal.

California (5-2) vs. Wyoming (5-2)


When: 12:00 p.m. Pacific, Sat., Dec. 5
Where: Arena-Auditorium, Laramie, Wyo.
TV: CBS Sports Network - Rich Waltz, Steve Wolf
Radio: KGO 810 AM - Todd McKim, Jay John
SiriusXM Satellite Radio: Sirius (119) and XM (198)
Series History: Cal leads, 4-2
Last Meeting: at Cal 45, Wyoming 42 (Dec. 10, 2014)
Odds and Ends: The last seven Pac-12 teams to visit the Arena-Auditorium (known locally as the Dome of Doom), have fallen to the Cowboys, as have the last eight Power 5 teams. Saturday will be a gold-out, with all students and fans encouraged to wear gold against Wyoming’s biggest non-conference home opponent ... Last season, Cal was 5-6 in road games ... This will be the first time the Bears have visited Laramie, Wyo., to face the Cowboys ... Four previous games have been played between Cal and Wyoming in Berkeley, and the two teams met once each in Knoxville, Tenn., and Albuquerque, N.M.

Cal Game Notes

Wyoming Game Notes

Zone of Misery

Two of California’s three worst shooting games have come against zone defenses: 40.4% against the 3-2 zone of Seattle in Monday’s narrow win, and 43.6% against East Carolina, which played a pack-line zone. Going into the season, with shooters like Jordan MathewsJaylen Brown and Jabari Bird, being able to shoot opponents out of the zone looked to be something this team could do. After all, last season, the Bears shot 35.9% from beyond the arc, with Mathews leading the pack with a 44.3% mark (70-of-158), and Bird going 31-for-84 (36.9%).

“If I was a betting man, to defend us in the man, it’ll be tough, and several NBA teams, who come in and scout the players, have said we’ll see a lot of zone this year, and that’s fine," head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the win over East Carolina. "We’ve got guys who will hit shots.”

Against the Pirates and Redhawks, though, Cal shot 8-of-39 from beyond the arc, with Mathews’s 5-of-7 day against Seattle buoying up that number.

“Typically in a zone, you shoot three’s," senior point guard Tyrone Wallace said after the Bears' win over East Carolina. The thing about the zone is, they don’t want you to get to the paint, so you have to find your shots on the perimeter. You still have to find your ways into the gaps and seams. It was just one of those nights – the ball isn’t going to go down every time.”

While Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt does prefer to play man, he’s not reluctant to switch to a zone, usually a 2-3 or a match-up variation. The Bears saw that kind of switch briefly against Sam Houston State, but a well-timed foul ended that flirtation.

Given that Cal has struggled against the zone, and has yet to prove that it can succeed against it on the floor, rather than on paper, expect the Cowboys (5-2) to force the issue, especially considering of their personnel.

The Post Battle

Wyoming lost six seniors, as well as NBA first-rounder Larry Nance, Jr., from last year's 25-win, NCAA Tournament team, and because of its relative youth (starting three sophomores, in 6-foot-10 Jonathan Barnes, 6-foot-9 Alan Herndon and 5-foot-11 guard Trey Washington III), the Cowboys have relied much more on zone, running teams off the three-point line and playing a position game, rather than forcing turnovers (more on that later).

The size presented by Barnes (4.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and Herndon (5.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg) likely means that the Bears will return to the bigger lineup we saw on Monday against Seattle, with seven-foot Kameron Rooks playing the five and freshman Ivan Rabb playing the four. 

Though Nance is gone, Wyoming's size inside means that Rabb is going to have to be effective in the high post, and the Bears are going to have to, as Martin has said, make a point of getting the ball to him, with Rooks sucking up offensive rebounds in the low post. Given the Cowboys' paucity of rebounding talent -- they're 296th in the nation in rebounding margin (-4.3 rpg) -- that's one way Cal can get extra scoring chances, because the Bears certainly won't get many in the turnover game: They are 344th in the nation -- third-to-last -- with 8.86 turnovers forced per game.

Taking Care of the Ball

Wyoming rarely pressures, which means that the Bears -- who fell twice in the Las Vegas Invitational after a 4-0 start -- could be able to get out in transition, ideally with Wallace and Brown leading the way.

"Coach tells us: We get the rebound, we're gone," Brown said after the win over Sam Houston State. "It makes us a different team when I'm pushing in transition. We're much faster, much harder to guard."

The athleticism provided by Wallace, Brown, Rabb, Mathews and Bird has indeed presented challenges for opponents in man defense, but that athleticism can sometimes get Cal in trouble, particularly the freshman Brown. While possessed of immense physical talent and strength, at times, Brown seems to try and do too much, forcing the issue on drives and getting out ahead of himself in transition. Brown's also committed 13 fouls in the last three games.

On Monday, the Bears turned the ball over 14 times, with many coming in transition because of sloppy ball handling, and two coming from Brown, who has eight turnovers in the last three games, with zero assists.

As with the three-point shooting, two of the Bears’ worst turnover games have come against the zone, with 14 on Monday (to just 12 assists) and 15 against East Carolina (to 14 assists).

While Wyoming doesn’t force many turnovers – the Cowboys are 302nd in the nation with 11.17 turnovers forced per game – they won’t exactly be giving the Bears many extra chances, ranking 30th in the nation in fewest turnovers per game, at 10.5.

If the Cowboys go into zone defense, Cal's best bet is to keep the ball moving, not settle for three-pointers and, above all, be smart with the ball. When Wallace is driving and collapsing the zone, the Bears have been much more effective. Most importantly, Wallace drives under control, and has 16 turnovers to 35 assists. Against Seattle, nine of his 11 points during Cal's 17-2 second-half run came as a result of him driving the lane. That kind of control is something that Brown has to grow into at this early stage of the season.

Trey Bien

Now more guard-oriented than last season, Wyoming plays more outside-in, ranking 43rd in the nation in three-pointers per game.

On defense, Cal can't sleep on the three. The Bears are ranked 284th in the nation in three-point defense (allowing a 37.5 shooting percentage), and the Cowboys have some bonafide snipers.

Senior guard Josh Adams is averaging 21.0 points and 5.3 assists per game, is shooting 47.2% from the field, and 38.3% from three-point land. Forward Jason McManamen is shooting 52.9% from beyond the arc, and sophomore guard Alexander Aka Gorski (good name) is hitting 46.2% from three.

When it comes to defending the three, the Cowboys are middle-of-the-road, ranking 124th in the nation in three-point field goal defense. That may be the opening the Bears need to get off the schnide against the zone, at least shooting-wise.

That said, Wyoming is coming off a stellar defensive effort on Wednesday, when they held Denver to just four points over the final seven minutes, and going on a 16-0 run for good measure. The Cowboys held the Pioneers to 19-of-47 from the field, and 3-of-19 from three-point land. Top Stories