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Arizona basketball: Opposing teams deploying zone defense to take advantage of Wildcats’ weakness

Other Pac-12 coaches are changing their ways to better compete with Arizona

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

For several years now, it’s been plainly obvious that the Arizona Wildcats are not as efficient on offense when presented with a competent zone defense.

There are a few reasons for this. One of the main ones would be that Arizona simply doesn’t go up against a competent zone defense in practice, because that is not Sean Miller’s defensive philosophy. It’s so far off his radar that when the Wildcats have gone into it on occasion over the past couple years, there’s a palpable buzz in the arena of people wondering if the world is about to end.

But as we’re starting to see, Arizona’s opponents are going into it more and more, even if it isn’t in their DNA either.

“We’ve had it in since early in the season, but it’s not our base defense or our primary defense,” Stanford head coach Jerod Haase told me after Wednesday’s game. “We had three, actually four different defenses we used today, and probably the majority of the time we were in the zone.”

Cal and Cuonzo Martin are making the adjustment as well, deploying a zone against ASU on Wednesday in what some could view as a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s game in Tucson.

Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson wrote this about ASU’s performance earlier in the week:

Head coach Bobby Hurley said there was a lot of dribbling laterally by the guards, playing into Cal’s zone.

“They had a really good plan for us in this game,” Hurley said of Cal, which played zone the entire game as opposed to the teams’ first meeting in Berkeley.

After the Washington game, Miller called Arizona “tentative” against the zone, and things haven’t changed in the three games since. Even Oregon State, by far the worst team in the conference, led Arizona at halftime because of the Wildcats’ inability to recognize and adjust to different defensive looks over the course of a game.

It’s the active zone that really baffles the Cats, and unfortunately for them, that’s what Cal rolled out on Wednesday.

"We might have played two possessions of man-to-man," Martin said in the article by Bear Insider written after Wednesday’s ASU contest linked above. "I just felt coming into a night like this it would be a tough night for us if we tried to defend those guys man to man. They have (Obinna) Oleka at the five position and four perimeter guys. We felt like the best shot to win the game we had to play zone."

A center and four perimeter players? Sounds familiar.

"It was an active zone," guard Grant Mullins added on. "Because they (ASU) have so many good shooters that we had to chase them off the line and be farther out in our zone because they shoot from deep."

ASU is a team that relies on the three much more than Arizona does (674 attempts compared to 417), but the Wildcats have had a much harder time getting the ball inside recently than earlier in the season. You could argue that this will make Cal’s time defending the Wildcats even easier as they won’t have to chase as many guys off the line.

In addition to this, Cal has the offensive weapons that will give Arizona issues. The Wildcats are struggling with interior defenseparticularly defensive rebounding — and the Bears add in a big piece they were missing in the first meeting between these two teams (a five-point game) in Kameron Rooks. Rooks played more minutes off the bench then starting center Kingsley Okoroh on Wednesday.

They’ll have Rooks in addition to Ivan Rabb, who was able to score 16 points and get 16 rebounds against Arizona the last time around.

This Wednesday’s game against Stanford, Arizona allowed Reid Travis, who is 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, to score 26 points and grab 11 rebounds, and he was used in a way that Rabb, who is 6-foot-11, probably will be to some extent.

“Coach has been telling me a lot he’s going to use me out on the perimeter a lot more with my handle and really going at bigger guys, especially when they put centers on me,” Travis explained to me after the game. “I feel like I have an advantage on the wing moreso than I do in the post. They’re able to use their length against me and they’re able to wall up when I’m down inside, but outside on the perimeter, I’m able to use my handle and my quickness.”

It will be interesting to see what Cal is able to do since they play somewhat similarly to Stanford, but have better players and athletes. If Arizona is unable to adjust, they could be staring down their second loss of the conference season, and just the second home loss in the last four years.