In two recent losses against the St. Louis Billikens and Nevada Wolf Pack, the Washington Huskies have shown a familiar ineptitude against teams that try to limit possessions and control tempo. In both cases the Huskies allowed their opponent to dictate the style of play, and were unable to respond in the half court—something their remaining opponents have certainly taken note of.
The book is out on the Huskies: A zone defense can can negate their best attribute—athleticism—and using the entire shot clock can dissolve their best weapon—possessions.
If Washington has anything to prove this season, they will have to do it against the frustrating zone defenses and deliberate half-court offenses that can stunt their run and gun methodology. Dramatic improvement against these opponents is crucial for their NCAA tournament hopes—starting this week at the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden against two ranked opponents in No. 16 Marquette, and No. 4 Duke.
Here are five key areas the Huskies must improve in the half court to have a chance.
Too many times this year the Washington Huskies have crowded the floor, especially at the top of the key.
Shifting personnel to one side of the floor on isolation plays can force a zone defense to stretch beyond its reach—creating space for a ball-handler to maneuver, while putting a tremendous strain on the help defense to rotate over a greater distance, thereby creating gaps elsewhere.
The Huskies would do well to space the floor much better against zones.
Opening one side of the court with slashers Abdul Gaddy, Terrence Ross and especially Tony Wroten Jr. would create a major problem for defensive rotations, as collapsing defenders vacate important zones that Husky shooters like C.J. Wilcox should be able to expose.
The key is movement off the ball. If a defender disengages to help, the Huskies on the overloaded side must recognize where the help is coming from and streak to the weak area.
Inexplicably, in losses against the St. Louis Billikens and Nevada Wolf Pack, the Washington Huskies abandoned any attempt to break down opposing guards on the perimeter.
Several times throughout those games Abdul Gaddy—who has shown quickness after tearing his ACL last year—seemed to be working in space against an opposing guard, but rarely attempted to take his defender off the dribble. Perhaps he doesn't get to the rim in those situations, but that is rarely the point against a zone defense.
Dribble penetration is one of the best ways to collapse a zone. Even a slight edge can dismantle the defense, because it pulls so many defenders out of position. With the shooters the Huskies have, it is truly confounding that coach Lorenzo Romar hasn't executed more drive-and-dish on offense—an obvious way to free up shooters like C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross.
Instead, the Huskies passed the ball aimlessly outside—back and forth ad nauseam. They seemed to lack any real purpose or direction in their ball movement—hoping that somehow the swarming zone defense would simply relent. As a result, the Huskies had several shot-clock violations in their two losses, a clear symptom of a stagnant, rudderless offense.
Adbul Gaddy and Tony Wroten Jr. need to live up to their billing as playmakers, and that begins with breaking down opposing guards on the perimeter.
Although the Washington Huskies lack a true post presence in their bigs, they must at the very least bluff inside.
Teams are guarding them so far outside that the key has become rife with opportunity—if only the Huskies would send some entry passes inside.
Center Aziz N'Diaye has to get better at finishing through contact, and that may be some of the reason for their hesitancy. But giving the ball to N'Diaye doesn't necessarily mean shot attempts down low. Almost as important as post scoring will be his ability to pass with his back to the basket.
Think of it as the equivalent to a good running game in football: In order to keep the defense honest, you must at least threaten to run the ball, otherwise teams are likely to play the long ball without reticence—which is exactly what is happening to the Huskies' long-range attack.
If N'Diaye can convert a few opportunities down low, and—most importantly—find the right outlet once the defense collapses to help, the Huskies should be able to find much better looks on the perimeter.
Typically screens are set off the ball or on the perimeter when the opposing defense is playing man-to-man. But that doesn't mean setting some screens on the ball against a zone wouldn't help the Washington Huskies and their sharpshooters.
Similar to what former Seattle SuperSonics coach Nate McMillan used to do with Ray Allen against a tough zone outside, setting a pick for a lights-out shooter up top can mean an easy bucket.
Normally when in zone coverage the defender will go underneath screens—something the Huskies' shooters can use to their advantage. A player like C.J. Wilcox should be able to capitalize nicely on even the slightest amount of space.
But the benefits don't end there. When the defense is showing zone, that means that only one defender should theoretically be on-ball before a screen is set. After they recognize a screen is coming—if they are weary of the Huskies' shooting prowess—the zone should shrink around the screen, bringing two defenders to one location, thereby limiting their ability to rotate.
This can be beneficial for swing passes along the perimeter, but it also creates the possibility that two defenders may be looking at one ball-carrier—perfect for backdoor passes, pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pop situations.
Too many times in recent years have we seen the Washington Huskies act like spectators on offense.
At times, they play less like a team and more like a collection of talented individuals. This approach might work against man-to-man defenses, where the Huskies' superior athletes can win one-on-one battles. But it's entirely different against zone defenses, as one Husky can find himself up against all five defenders at once.
Much more movement is needed off the ball, and that starts with cuts to the basket. Especially if Aziz N'Diaye, Shawn Kemp Jr., Darnell Gant or Desmond Simmons ever get the ball on the block, the opportunity to cut against a collapsing zone defense is palpable.
As we covered in slide No. 3, defenders should look to guard against the Huskies' prolific perimeter shooting first, which is exactly why the Huskies must implement a steady diet of jabs—by streaking to the basket—before the zone will be soft enough to land their signature three-point knockout blows.