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UW Basketball: Huskies' Zone Defense Hardly An ‘Earth-Shattering Revelation’

The Washington Huskies have typically been a man-to-man team, but with the addition of seven-foot center Aziz N'Diaye this season, coach Lorenzo Romar is running more zone defense. But players like Justin Holiday - known primarily for his on-ball defense are a big part of that as well because ultimately there are still man principles at work even within a zone concept.

For all the talk about Washington Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas' outstanding individual performance in their 85-68 win on Thursday, holding Arizona WIldcats star and NBA lottery pick Derrick Williams to 2-for-7 shooting in the first half probably stands out as the most impressive thing about the team's overall performance.

And as Todd Dybas of SportsPress Northwest described after the game, it was their mob mentality within a zone concept that helped contain an otherwise dominant individual.

How the Huskies worked over Derrick Williams | UW Basketball
Washington sat in a zone half the night to slow Williams. The Huskies put a player in front of and behind Williams while the fluid 6-8 NBA prospect floated from elbow to elbow.

As much as control can be claimed when the final numbers are 22 points and 11 rebounds, the Huskies can claim it.

Williams had not viewed such attention since tangoing with second-ranked Kansas. The Jayhawks held him to, ahem, to 27 points. The Huskies did better.

Of course, as Dybas alludes to by referencing the Kansas game, Williams did still tied for a game-high 22 points and was ultimately the most productive player on the court for the Wildcats despite the defensive effort.

And we should expect that - he's going to get his in some way or another even if you manage to hold the man down. That's just what NBA lottery prospects are supposed to do - adjust to the situation and make plays no matter what the defense throws at them.

What it means to "contain" a potential lottery pick

It's not just a Sportscenter cliche - you really can only hope to contain Derrick Williams. And that was essentially the Huskies' focus all night, whether in zone or man.

"We tried to mix it up and keep it off-balance and not to give him a consistent look and whenever he got the ball there was five pairs of eyes fixated on him," said Romar during a session with media yesterday afternoon. "That's what we tried to do - we just paid a lot of attention to him."

However, what makes the Huskies' defensive performance particularly impressive is what didn't show up in the boxscore. With the benefit of film-enhanced hindsight, Romar explained that how Williams got his points was as important as the final stat line. 

"If you think about it, how many of those buckets were scored with him and Aziz?" asked Romar after listing every single basket that Williams scored in the second half. "Now they run a motion a lot and he's running him all over the perimeter. But with that being said, the only time he scored on Aziz was in the first half - he went to the basket and drove it and made a nice shot. And he hit the three. Other than that, Aziz did a phenomenal job. And Derrick Williams only went to the line seven times - he averages 10 times going to the line a game. People might not pick that up - that might go over a lot of people's heads."

Yet in addition to N'Diaye's individual defensive play, a large part of keeping Williams off-balance was their ability to mix man-to-man coverage with what Romar described as a basic "junior high" zone.

Youth Basketball Zone Defense
(via, but not necessarily where Romar got his zone)

"It's just a simple 2-3 zone - a junior high zone," said Romar when asked about where he got his zone from. "You can learn from anyone, trust me - basketball is basketball. But it's not a complicated zone. The triangle offense that Phil Jackson, Tex Winter runs is a really good offense. There's a lot of coaches that have been fired using that offense too because they didn't have Michael Jordan or Kobe.

"So the zone itself is not some earth-shattering revelation - it's just the personnel playing the zone is better than we've had and we've put more time into it. We just didn't work on it enough in the past."

Willingness to play zone is more about new personnel rather than a new philosophy

While Romar acknowledges that using a zone defense is a departure from his past emphasis on a man-to-man defense, the reason he has been inspired to use it more frequently now is more about the personnel he has at his disposal rather than a sudden shift in thinking.

"We've looked at 2-3 zones in the past, we just didn't spend enough time on it," said Romar. "This year, because of the makeup of our team - we just haven't had this size before, we just haven't had this length before on the wings. We decided before the season started [to] make sure we're good enough in zone so we could use it in those situations I've mentioned."

With the smaller lineups they've utilized in the past, perhaps a man-to-man concept that relied on their quickness on the perimeter made more sense. However, the addition of N'Diaye suddenly made running a zone an asset that really wasn't quite available to them before, or at least not in the way it clearly is with N'Diaye at their disposal.

"One of the reasons we practiced zone early is because of Aziz and we knew we could potentially have a big lineup out there," said Romar. "We knew we had potential to put an Abdul (Gaddy), Terrence Ross, Justin Holiday, Matthew (Bryan-Amaning) on the floor at the same time. That's a big zone. We thought that would be an asset."

N'Diaye the "unsung presence" that makes the Huskies zone work

Although N'Diaye might not be the dominant offensive presence that some people hoped he would be prior to the season, his biggest impact has unquestionably come on the defensive end where he can both help contain players like Williams and help on other opposing players as well.

"You have - and maybe you do have some idea - but I want to say you have no idea what Aziz gives us out there on the floor without scoring a lot," said Romar. "The times, again, he wasn't on him and some of their other guys drove to the rim, Aziz was just there and maybe their shot is altered. Not to mention, Parry and Jamelle Horne defended Matthew because their bigger guy - Derrick Williams - is guarding Aziz. He just means so much out there. Not to mention the screens that he sets, all those things. He's a real, I call it, an unsung presence out there."

But N'Diaye's impact in the zone concept goes beyond merely being tall - it's his athleticism combined with toughness next to the already athletic Matthew Bryan-Amaning that gives the Huskies a formidable defensive presence inside, whether playing zone or man.

"He is not a stiff, immobile seven foot," said Romar. "You watch him guarding Williams, he can get low and get down in a stance. One thing you always want to look for in big guys is can they get low - can they get down in a stance. And the way we play, if they can that's a thumbs up for those guys. A lot of big guys, they can't bend [their knees]."

But how does playing zone affect players accustomed to man schemes?

Some people expressed concern that playing a zone might require the biggest adjustment for players like forward Justin Holiday or guard Venoy Overton, who are known for their elite on-ball defensive ability. But underlying Romar's point about this being a "junior high zone" is that he implemented something that a middle schooler could theoretically execute - it's not rocket science.

So it makes since that Holiday doesn't see it as that big a deal.

"It really doesn't matter what defense we play - I'm willing to play whatever defense that works personally," said Holiday when asked about the team playing zone more often. "In terms of zone, if it helps us win the game, then I'm all good with that. People might think you can't get steals and stuff like that in a zone, but you actually can you just gotta be smart."

Sticking with the notion that Romar is using something of a junior high zone, it's also worth mentioning that the best of youth basketball coaches are able to teach man-to-man principles within a zone concept, especially in employing the type of aggressive trapping type of zone described in the video above. That leads to a bigger point - while there may be a prevalent myth that a zone is automatically more passive than man-to-man - and against a poor 3-point shooting team, it makes sense to play it that way - the reality is that there's a variety of ways to execute a zone.

"The main thought of a zone is that, but Romar gets it to where it's not lackadaisical," said Holiday when a reporter asked if the zone limits what he can do defensively. "He tries to make sure we're always active - we're still putting pressure on the ball and we're still moving quick. So for some people a zone might be that way, but for us we still try to make sure we have some of the man principles in a zone.

Basic man-to-man principles of closing out under control to contest shots, helping when playing defense off the ball, and finding a man to box out don't simply change simply because a team is playing zone - it's a different scheme, but can be played in ways that don't differ much from a man defense. And within that concept, so strong one-on-one defenders like Holiday become more valuable in a zone, not less.

"In a zone, you don't have as much help - you can get in the middle in the teeth of the defense and kick it out," said Romar when asked about how a strong on-ball defender like Holiday helps the zone. "So you don't want them to beat you off the dribble. So there's a premium on on-ball defenders in a zone is higher because you just can't get beat - there's just not much recovery when guys beat you and penetrate the zone. Someone like Justin - who's long and he's concentrating - it doesn't seem like there's an alley there and nowhere to go. He'll prevent you from [driving] you'll settle for jumpers all night."

It makes sense that some people might believe that a zone can have the effect of muting the individual defensive abilities of players like Holiday or N'Diaye. But for the Huskies, having defenders with a strong grasp of man-to-man principles is part of what makes the zone work so well.

Well, that and having a seven footer to stick in the middle.