SEATTLE — Point guard Abdul Gaddy bristles at the insinuation.
Coach Lorenzo Romar entertains the observation but quickly brushes it aside.
The Washington Huskies? A zone team?
Don’t tell them that.
“We’re a man-to-man team,” Gaddy, a junior on the University of Washington men’s basketball team, said curtly of UW’s defensive style. “We play zone just to throw teams off. And then if it works, you stay with it; you don’t fix something that’s not broke. But we’re a man-to-man team. That’s what we work on, that’s what coach Romar coaches, and that’s what we do.”
And yet the Huskies probably have played more zone defense this year — and with greater success — then they have in recent memory. A combination of injuries, foul trouble and matchup problems have forced UW to fall into a zone defense early and often during Pacific-12 Conference games.
And despite the constant reminders that this is still a man-to-man team, the Huskies have certainly shown growth as a zone defense this season.
“We’re better equipped to play the zone this year than we’ve played in the past,” Romar said Tuesday. “We’ve been playing it better than we have in the past. But I don’t know if we’re better at the zone (than at playing man-to-man).”
While Romar is quick to profess that the Huskies still have played about “90 percent” of their defensive possessions in man-to-man this season — an estimate that seems more than a bit inflated — he admits that this season’s Huskies have worked more on the zone defense than ever before.
With a roster that was deep on long-limbed guards and a 7-foot shot blocker in Aziz N’Diaye, Romar knew even before the season began that the 2011-12 Huskies might thrive as a zone team. His staff spent extended hours in the summer putting in a plan to use more zone, which often relies more on cutting down passing lanes and helping out teammates than it does pure on-the-ball defense.
“We thought the zone could come in handy for us,” Romar said Tuesday. “It has come in handy for us before, but we just were a lot smaller, and teams would shoot over us. We thought we could be more effective (this season). And so from Day 1, we worked on it more.”
A preseason injury to senior Scott Suggs left the Huskies with less depth than expected, and in-season injuries to players like C.J. Wilcox and Tony Wroten Jr. have been a factor in the Huskies using the zone to help save players’ legs. There were stretches this season when UW just went six or seven players deep, and so Romar relied on zone defenses for long stretches of first halves to keep his team fresh.
Foul trouble and a lack of lockdown defenders also have been a factor in more zone defenses, and yet this year’s Huskies have mostly been open to the new look.
“I feel like our zone is just as intense as our man defense,” freshman Desmond Simmons said. “We’re still scrambling and talking and playing just as hard as when we’re playing man.”
And yet no one on the Huskies is ready to call this a zone team.
“If you look at all of our possessions, all year long,” Romar said, “we’re still a man-to-man team.”
Gaddy, who points out that UW uses the zone defense mainly to slow down tempo and give opposing teams a new look, takes the most exception to any suggestion that the Huskies might be a zone team.
“We’re not a zone team,” he said. “If everybody sees it like that, it’s whatever. I just know that coach (Romar) doesn’t like using it. He just uses it for time management.”