Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen


Citizen Staff Writer

Defense? Defense at Arizona? Perhaps you need to ask that in the same incredulous tone that Allen Iverson reserves for talking about practice.

The Wildcats have been nothing special on defense, have not been known for their defensive effort, for several years.

The past five teams collectively have allowed opponents to shoot better than 44 percent. Eh.

But ask junior forward Chase Budinger about the most important factor in Saturday’s victory against Washington State and he’ll say, “Defense.”

Ask Budinger what needs to be done for the Cats to pick up road victories this week against the Oregon schools and he’ll say, “Defense.”

The Wildcats might not be great at it, but the trends are heading in the right direction, and, you gotta love it, they’re actually trying.

“That mental challenge of getting a team to say, ‘OK, our identity is going to be on defense’ takes a long time,” said UA interim head coach Russ Pennell.

“Sometimes, you don’t get it in a season.”

And sometimes you do.

Scratch the run-and-gun Wildcats. Forget about the selfish players of the recent past, the guys interested only in compiling offensive numbers and using the program as a steppingstone to the NBA.

The happiest development of Arizona’s still-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bubble season is that to even get this far, the Wildcats have chosen to man up and play zone. And commit to playing it reasonably well.

Arizona might not be Team Defense, but it is playing team defense.

“We’ve been having the other team kind of play chaotic against us,” Budinger said. “And they don’t like that.”

If we can get a little number-y on you here, check out the results of the last five games – against USC, ASU, Houston, Washington and Washington State.

Arizona has allowed those five teams to shoot 39.3 percent overall and 27.6 from 3-point range.

Those are pretty good numbers for anybody, and pretty good numbers when you add a bit of context.

For the season, those teams shoot 45.4 percent from the field, and 34.3 percent from beyond the arc. So, they are no slouches. Not one of those five foes shot better than their season average against the Cats.

Yep, “The Claw” – the name given this season to assistant coach Mike Dunlap’s 1-1-3 zone defense – is tightening its grip.

Which is just how the Arizona coaching staff envisioned it. The coaches decided on this defensive course of action a couple of days after head coach Lute Olson’s retirement in late October.

Olson mostly was a man-to-man devotee over the years, which made perfect basketball sense. His athletes were almost always better than the other guys’ athletes.

But Olson was flexible, too, and mixed in various zones to good effect.

Who knows what he would have done this season.

But with Olson gone, the assistants figured the zone – Dunlap has produced instructional DVDs on the 1-1-3 – was the only way to go.

“My background is like 101 percent man-to-man, but this has been good,” Pennell said.

“There were some thoughts that had us concerned. No. 1 was foul trouble. We knew we needed to keep three guys in particular on the floor at all times. We knew zone would help do that some.

“But we also thought, well, we have some athletes. So instead of the traditional YMCA zone where you stand back with your hands up, we could be a lot more aggressive, which Mike was used to. It took a while to develop because it’s kind of difficult to learn.”

This zone does have man-to-man, on-the-ball principles, lots of player rotation – blah, blah, blah – and it wasn’t immediately ready for prime time. The Wildcats mostly played man-to-man for the first month of the season.

“But we were working the crap out of the zone in practice,” Pennell said.

It was fully, finally unleashed – Pennell’s word – against unsuspecting Gonzaga on Dec. 14. Arizona pulled off the upset, 69-64 in Phoenix, and held the Bulldogs to their season-low point total.

As far as basic stats go, Olson always kept an eye on field-goal percentage defense – a better indicator than points allowed, which is influenced by the pace of the game.

Good news: UA is allowing teams to shoot 41.7 percent. That, easily, will be the program’s best mark since the 2002-03 season.

“This has taken a very selfless attitude, because it takes all five guys to do it,” Pennell said.

“It takes a lot of effort and energy, which allows everybody on the team to participate. Not everyone can score 20 points, but they can all play the 1-1-3.”

Now, it’s a source of pride.

And victories.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com



Thursday: UA (14-8, 4-5) at Oregon State (10-10, 4-5), 6:30 p.m., FSNA

Saturday: UA at Oregon (6-15, 0-9), 1:30 p.m., ABC

- Budinger wins player of the week honors, 2C


The Arizona basketball team’s defense has stymied opponents in the past five games:

Opp. Opp. FG% UA result

USC 45.1 L

ASU 28.6 L

Houston 36.1 W

Washington 45.7 W

WSU 40.0 W

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