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Saturday, March 21, 2009
ASU, Cuse always in the zone


MIAMI -- This might be more than man-to-man zealot Bob Knight can bear to watch. It certainly will be more than Bill "Manaman!" Raftery can bear to announce.

But the Syracuse-Arizona State second-round game here Sunday (12:10 p.m. ET) probably will be all zone, all the time.

Like, every single possession.

Besides Louisville, these two teams might be the foremost practitioners of zone defense in college basketball -- but they go about it in very different ways. Syracuse plays Jim Boeheim's timeless 2-3, famous for active hands up top and length everywhere. Arizona State plays a more esoteric zone, a matchup 3-2 that morphs and moves in relation to the offense it's facing.

Somebody's going to need to hit some outside shots, and to find some gaps.

"We've got the best zone," Syracuse forward Paul Harris said.

"I definitely agree," teammate Andy Rautins said. "I think we've shut down a lot of offenses."

On Sunday, the Orange will attempt to shut down an Arizona State offense that ranks sixth nationally in efficiency and second in effective field goal percentage, according to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy. The Sun Devils don't play terribly fast, but they're productive with the ball -- and they have had success against a 2-3 zone look before.

Rival Arizona plays quite a bit of it, and the Devils won all three meetings this season -- shooting better than 52 percent from the field in two of those games. Syracuse has watched tape of those games. Without coming right out and saying it, the Orange are convinced that their zone will be another matter entirely.

That's because Syracuse has improved on the defensive end considerably as the season has gone along. This might not be a zone on par with the 2003 national champions or the 1996 runner-ups, but it's causing problems.

"Our knowledge and activity are better," said associate coach Mike Hopkins. "A zone is just like good man-to-man -- you're only as good as your weakest link. Our weaker links have gotten better."

When Herb Sendek got to Arizona State, he saw nothing but weak links defensively. That's when a lifelong man-to-man coach decided to try this 3-2 matchup thing.

"Out of desperation," said assistant Scott Pera. "With our personnel, we weren't going to guard anybody in our league man to man. None of us had ever taught it. We went in some ways by the seat of our pants."

Arizona State suffered through a 20-loss season, but the funky defense kept the Sun Devils in several games. In the offseason ASU tinkered with it and has steadily gotten better over the past two years.

"Over time it has just evolved, and now it's something that we've decided to stick with and play," Sendek said.

May the best zone win.

No. 12 Arizona (20-13) vs. No. 13 Cleveland State (26-10)
You cannot get through a conversation with the Cleveland State Vikings without hearing the word "toughness" come up. They live it, breathe it and espouse it on the court, manifested in their tenacious defense and ability to compete with teams that tower over them.

The living proof of Cleveland State toughness Saturday was the chipper presence of guard Cedric Jackson in the interview room. Roughly 14 hours earlier, in the aftermath of walloping Wake Forest, Jackson looked like walking death after taking IVs for dehydration.

"I'm good to go for tomorrow," Jackson said.

One word you rarely hear in connection with the Arizona Wildcats is toughness. That's a holdover from some of the talented Lute Olson teams that occasionally were soft defensively and did not handle adversity well -- but does it apply to the current Cats?

No, they say.

"It bothers me," Chase Budinger said. "We're trying to be more aggressive out there, more assertive on the defensive end, going to the boards. Just the little things like that."

From an NBA perspective, talent skews heavily in favor of Arizona. Budinger, center Jordan Hill and point guard Nic Wise all are considered NBA draftees -- with Hill perhaps the leading prospect.

Nobody is lining up to draft three Vikings anytime soon. But they faced a similar situation Friday night against lavishly talented Wake Forest and didn't just beat the Demon Deacons, they destroyed them.

The difference this time could be that Arizona has its eyes wide open. Watching Wake Forest walk into an ambush should eradicate any chance of underestimating the Vikings.

"I was in shock, to tell the truth," Hill said when he saw what Cleveland State did to the Demon Deacons.

"We can't take them lightly like Wake Forest did," Wise said.

Even if Arizona brings it's A game, there's no guarantee the Wildcats win. The Vikings once again passed the pregame eyeball test -- they do not appear happy to merely still be playing. And they certainly won't be in awe of their opponent.

"Our goal wasn't just to make it to the NCAA tournament," coach Gary Waters said. "It goes far beyond that."

Waters declined to specify where the Vikings' goals end -- but it's clearly not on a Sunday afternoon in Miami. At this point, it would be dangerous to bet against them.