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Cal crushes ASU . . . with a zone?

Cuonzo Martin shuns his signature defense and gets rewarded with perhaps Cal’s best performance of the season

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona State
Just another picture of an ASU ball handler getting smothered
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in the offseason, Cal hired Tim O’Toole as an assistant coach, and there generally wasn’t much opinion about him either way in these parts. My take, at the time, might lead to some retroactive laughs considering the pain Cal just inflicted upon ASU:

O'Toole has received some notoriety for helping Stanford install certain zone principles O'Toole picked up while working at Syracuse. While interesting, I'd be shocked if Cal moves away from Cuonzo's bread and butter man-to-man in situations other than absolute desperation. And considering how good Cal's defense was last season, any change would be asking for trouble.

As always - Cuonzo Martin: better at coaching than me.

Think about it. Who’s better at coaching a man to man defense? Tony Bennett? Frank Martin? There aren’t many who do it better. It’s the foundation of his success as a coach, the ethos that he builds his team around. When given the choice between offense and defense, coach goes with defense. When he’s asked about Cal’s rare forays into zone defense, Cuonzo’s first comment is usually a statement about how he hates anything other than man-to-man.

And even coaches who DON’T do something as well as Cuonzo are control freaks who are loath to change things they believe work. So let’s give big kudos to Cuonzo for having the open mind, flexibility, and humility to bring in a coach who does something you don’t, let him use practice time to install a new defense, and then deploying it in a way that helps Cal win games.

We’re finally getting to the point: Cal held ASU to an absurd .66 points/possession (previous season low: .83 vs. Kentucky) by playing almost entirely a zone defense. It’s true that ASU contributed to their own demise by mostly bricking the few open shots they earned. But it’s even MORE true that ASU was left to take a bunch of crap shots against set defenders against Cal’s shockingly air tight zone.

Cal’s defense is now ranked 8th in the whole damned country by Kenpom, which is probably the highest . . . ever? You need to pause and consider that this is the best defense you have ever watched Cal play, unless you were lucky enough to see Pete Newell devouring a towel on the sideline.

Cal’s offense had a meh night against a bad defense, but when the other team that impotent, a meh effort still results in a blowout win. Grant Mullins (5 6 threes) and Ivan Rabb (a mundane double double) were the driving forces, providing enough combined production to almost beat ASU by themselves.

The biggest problem in a game joyfully devoid of many? 17 turnovers, against a defense that isn’t particularly good at forcing them. Some were random, like a bunch of travels. Some were maddening, like Kam and King getting stripped under the basket when being strong with the ball would’ve resulted in an easy dunk. Some were frustrating, like two awful charge calls. Some day the righteous anger of the church of #bancharges shall spill out into the streets.

Those turnovers were ASU’s only source of offense in the first half - the Devils scored 17 points, and roughly half were in transition. The greatest threat to Cal’s defense? Cal’s offense.

So: How good exactly is this zone, and when will Cal deploy it? As best I can tell, there are two scenarios: When Cal has foul trouble to cover, and when opponents go small. The zone, done right, allows Cal to maintain the rim protection of Ivan and Kam/King without giving up good 3 point looks to stretch 4s and 5s.

It worked against ASU because they are the dominant practitioners of small ball in the Pac right now. I’d be mildly surprised to see a ton of zone against Arizona this weekend, but wouldn’t be shocked at all to see lots of it against the Ducks in a few weeks.

As with most things Cal does, Ivan is probably the key. He’s asked to extend his defense out to the corner in the zone to prevent 3s, and his length and mobility allow just that.

I’m not going to say the curtain of distraction doesn’t work, but ASU is 247th in the nation in free throw ‘defense.’

So that was a pretty great win. Cal avoided what would have been a bad RPI loss even though it would be completely explicable in the real world where the RPI is stupid. Our Computer Overlords now see 12-6 as the likeliest regular season Pac-12 record for the Bears. Saturday night against a vaguely vulnerable Arizona certainly isn’t likely, but doesn’t feel like an absurd impossibility either.

Cal’s stretch of winning basketball prior to ASU (7 wins in 8 games) has been just as much about a weak schedule (OSU, UW, WSU, 5 of the 8 at home) as it has been about improved play. But destroying a dangerous team in their gym in a game that the numbers suggested might’ve been a coin flip? That’s a data point in favor of late season optimism.

Time to burn down McKale