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UCLA BASKETBALL FYI

Comfortable in the zone? They'll find out

If the Bruins shelve their trademark man-to-man defense for even a few minutes against top-ranked Kansas -- as Coach Ben Howland has been hinting all week -- it will mark a tectonic shift.

December 06, 2009|By David Wharton

If the coach calls for a zone defense at some point this afternoon, that will be just fine by Jerime Anderson.

The UCLA point guard considers the zone "kind of basic basketball. It shouldn't be too hard to catch on."

But if the Bruins shelve their trademark man-to-man for even a few minutes against top-ranked Kansas -- as Coach Ben Howland has been hinting all week -- it will mark a tectonic shift.

Even the Jayhawks, hearing rumors half a country away, seem intrigued.

"Ben plays less zone than we do, which isn't much," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "From a defensive standpoint, on the perimeter they may want to play some zone, but I don't know exactly what that indicates."

The Bruins figure to need something special against an undefeated opponent at Pauley Pavilion, trying to end a three-game losing streak and playing without center Drew Gordon, who quit the team last week.

"It's a daunting challenge," Howland said.

The zone isn't entirely new to him -- he employed it occasionally in a previous stop at Pittsburgh and a little during his first season in Westwood.

His hand is now forced by a young team that has struggled to stay in front of the ball.

Through the first six games, opponents are shooting 45% and outscoring the Bruins by an average of two-plus points.

"Obviously, this season we haven't been the defensive stopping team that we had been in the past," senior forward James Keefe said.

When Howland was coaching in the Big East Conference, he watched Syracuse badger opponents with an aggressive zone.

At UCLA, a shift in defensive philosophy might lead to personnel changes, with more opportunity for youngsters such as Mike Moser and Tyler Honeycutt.

"One thing we can do at times is have length and size in there," Howland said.

The Bruins planned to spend this week practicing their new ploy, the coach intent on delivering a warning to his players: "Sometimes when people get in the zone, kids feel like it's time to relax."

Howland wants to see the same kind of effort that has marked UCLA's man defense in past seasons: pressuring the ballhandler, disrupting the opponent's offense.

"You have to understand that you have to work really hard," he said. "You've got to be on your toes the whole time."

That will be especially true against a Kansas squad that arrives in Southern California on the heels of a 98-31 -- yes, 98-31 -- victory over Alcorn State.

Two years ago, this would have been a marquee game.

Now, with UCLA off to a 2-4 start, the Kansas players sound as if they are guarding against complacency.

"It is not a pushover game and not one to just mark on the calendar as a win," senior guard Sherron Collins said. "We really need to go in there and play because it is going to be a tough game in a tough atmosphere."

One bit of good news for the Bruins: Freshman Reeves Nelson appears to have recovered from a hyperextended knee and will probably start in Gordon's place at center.

But Anderson suspects it will take a lot -- more than a single player, more than a switch to zone -- to spark a turnaround for his team.

"I don't think one thing is necessarily going to be a huge solution for the problems that we're having," he said. "The main thing is, we've got to play hard."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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