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ASU Men’s Basketball: Dissecting ASU’s struggles against the zone

(Photo: Nicole Hernandez/WCSN)

While in most cases the idea of being “in the zone” is a good thing, the Arizona State Sun Devils have been trying to get as far away from the zone as physically possible.

The zone that ASU faces is not the nebulous place where players perform better, but zone defenses. The Devils have not had an easy time dealing with opposing zone coverages, especially in the waning weeks of conference play.

The bane of the team’s existence has been the 1-2-2 zone scheme, a sort of halfway house between the standard 2-3 and 3-2 that exist from youth basketball up through college. The Sun Devils struggle to deal with the 1-2-2 because it’s specifically designed to beat teams with a lot of shooting and no inside threat.

The first game of the conference schedule where this problem entered the spotlight was Jan. 22, in an 82-79 loss to USC. With a one-point deficit and nine minutes left, the Trojans dropped into zone. ASU ceded an 18-5 run and lost despite making a last-minute comeback effort.

“We were in a good rhythm on offense,” Hurley said after the game, per AZCentral. “They did a good job with their zone defense. We couldn’t get into the lane and kick out. We just were passing the ball and probing on the perimeter of that zone and never able to get into the teeth of it and find shooters.”

Despite the falloff in SoCal, Hurley maintained that he liked dealing with zone defenses because of faith in ASU’s guards and the shooting ability of his team. His faith is not misplaced. ASU has the fourth-most productive offense in the conference and Torian Graham, Tra Holder and Shannon Evans rank second, fourth and ninth in the Pac-12 in points.

Yet, the Devils have not been able to crack these zone defenses. Two opponents stand out as examples: The Washington State Cougars and the Cal Golden Bears.

ASU dropped both games this season against the Cougars. WSU won in Tempe for the first time since 2009 in late January. On Saturday, a late collapse by ASU secured the sweep for the opposition up in Pullman.

In both cases, the Cougars deployed a 1-2-2 zone. Freshman forward Jeff Pollard and senior forward Josh Hawkinson are both ideal big men to run the system with because, while tall, they are also mobile for their size. A key part of running the 1-2-2 is the two back players have to move laterally quickly to deny the corners, while also rebounding diligently.

In that game, the two combined for 16 rebounds and did a good job denying space for ASU. They trapped the corners and forced ASU into tough areas.

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In the instance above, Hawkinson separates from Obinna Oleka and goes to trap Graham, leaving him with two bad options: Try to make the over-the-head pass or drive with two taller players to beat. This play ultimately resulted in an ASU turnover.

The Sun Devils were ginger early, starting 2-of-7 from the floor, but they ultimately scored 83 points in that loss. The problem for ASU is that falling behind against the 1-2-2 creates something of a vicious cycle. They run into the zone, trail early and then shoot a lot of threes against a defense designed to stop the perimeter.

“We have to do a better job with our leaders early in games so we aren’t chasing so early,” Hurley said.

The other thing ASU failed to do against Washington State was score in transition. One important way to stop zone defenses is to be moving before everyone is in place. In cases like this, when teams are lazy setting up, it opens an advantage.

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For this example, the Sun Devils work quickly before Washington State is set, and four players immediately turn their attention to the ball-handler. With only one man to beat, Graham is able to slip through the broken zone defense and get a layup.

The bad news: ASU had six fastbreak points against the Cougars the first time around. The second time, they had none. Zero.

While the losses to Washington State were frustrating for the Devils, by far the most problematic defeat was against Cal on Feb. 8. ASU shot 25 percent from the floor and scored 43 points, both lows for the Hurley era.

“Last time we played Cal, they manned us the whole game with their two bigs,” ASU forward Kodi Justice said after the loss, which he described as “embarrassing”. “We got to attack. We got Rabb in foul trouble early. This game they zoned us the whole game and we just couldn’t figure out how to break it.”

Cal going into a zone scheme came as a surprise, given that coach Cuonzo Martin has a documented history of hating zone in any form. Still, it worked for Cal to perfection. It worked so well that other opponents found it worth mentioning when previewing ASU games.

ASU has two ways to beat the 1-2-2, which it will likely see again in its three upcoming games of the regular season, or at least in the Pac-12 tournament.

The first is to play faster. ASU is a team that has the ability to organize quickly when needed, and they can pass in transition. They’re fourth in the Pac-12 in assist to turnover ratio (and were first not long ago). The problem for ASU is that the ball sticks too much when they face zone, as Graham mentioned after the USC game.

“The ball stands still too long (against the zone),” Graham said. It’s different because teams usually play man the whole game. When they switch to zone, they try to slow us down and we’re an up tempo team.” Hurley echoed a similar sentiment after the Cal game about dribbling too much.

The second thing they can do is groom a player who can play on the low block. The 1-2-2 is designed for teams with no inside threat, and ASU has none. Oleka is more of an outside the paint player naturally and Ramon Vila and Jethro Tshisumpa have unpolished offensive games.

If ASU had a scoring threat who could play with his back to the basket, it would force teams to make tradeoffs defensively that could help their rhythm and shot quality. The two big men can no longer just camp the corner if they have to also be active defending underneath the bucket.

While it may be too late for ASU to undo the problems they’ve faced with zone defenses this season, there’s still the future to consider. The Devils will have new recruits and likely a much deeper team the coming season, and Justice and Holder will be in their final year. If Arizona State can prepare better against zone defenses in the future, it’ll open doors for the Devils to climb back to where they want to be.

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