Of the various things John Chaney has brought to the Temple basketball program, the x-factor has been his notorious matchup zone defense.
Essentially it’s predicated on limiting transition points, forcing turnovers, neutralizing any sort of interior offense and daring teams to beat the Owls with three-point shooting.
For Chaney, the matchup zone has been a huge reason for his .700 winning percentage.
The zone allows the Owls to control game tempo and, in doing so, it creates more offensive opportunities for them.
Whether facing Atlantic 10 Conference foes or Top 25 squads, the Owls generally have a distinct advantage due to the pressure the matchup zone causes.
Moreover, some of Chaney’s most unheralded teams have been able to go deeper than expected in postseason play, due to the asphyxiating zone.
“It’s kind of hard because it seems like the zone changes up,” George Washington’s leading scorer Chris Monroe said. “If they’re on point, it’s kind of hard to get in there. You’ve got to take what the defense gives you.”
Unlike most zone defenses that require players to cover a specific area, the matchup zone stresses tight man-to-man cover in those areas.
Constant ball pressure forces more steals, kills more time off the shot clock for teams to get good looks at the basket and keeps the offense off kilter.
In turn, the Owls’ offensive modus operandi is using a majority of the shot clock and forcing opponents to defend them for as long as possible.
When asked about the matchup zone, St. Joseph’s star point guard Jameer Nelson said, “For a point guard, the matchup zone is easy. I just try to approach it like any other zone. If I can get into the middle of the zone, it’s over. Once you get into the middle of the zone, nobody knows where to go,” Nelson said.
“Nobody knows when to pick the ball up.”
Nelson’s hubris is somewhat unfounded since the Owls managed to sweep the Hawks in the season series last year.
However, Chaney agrees with Nelson’s assessment to a degree.
“I think he finds it easier when he has players around him,” Chaney said.
“If he passes it to players who cannot stick a shot, that’s not easy, is it?”
Chaney’s reference to the four graduated Hawks starters, who with Nelson were a well-rounded team, makes a solid case against the zone.
Chaney concedes that better talented teams, especially perennial powerhouses like Duke, Maryland and Kansas, are the types of teams that have made the matchup zone look ordinary.
“We’ve beaten Duke, but I think that was an aberration. We don’t do well against those teams until our kids grow up,” Chaney said.
“When then grow up, we play better.”
But the underachieving Owls managed to lose to LaSalle last year during both the regular season and the A-10 Tournament.
Those final two losses of the season precluded the Owls from making the NCAA tournament for a 13th consecutive season.
Though the Explorers had a star in Rasual Butler, they also did the basic thing to win basketball games: they made open shots.
If teams are effective in spreading the ball around the perimeter and hitting open shots, the chances of beating the Owls increase greatly.
Some teams try to establish a low-post game against the matchup zone, but only legitimate big men can make a difference.
Very few of those exist in the A-10 and even Xavier’s David West, the returning two-time A-10 player of the year, has struggled against the matchup.
The Owls upset the Musketeers last year, 67-56, at the Liacouras Center.
West had 12 points and 11 rebounds on just 5-of-14 shooting, and A-10 first-teamer Romaine Sato was held scoreless, shooting 0-for-7 from the field.
If the zone can have the same effect as it did last year on the Musketeers, the Owls should have no trouble making the Big Dance.
Three games into the season and still without a win, the Owls look inferior right now.
But Chaney knows that he must groom the inexperienced players to a defense he has mapped down to a science.
The Owls have five newcomers coming into this season, all of whom must learn the complexities and nuances of Chaney’s system.
Chaney’s barometer of potential playing time for the newcomers is partly based on how quickly they adjust to the scheme.
According to Chaney, prior to the beginning of the season, freshman center Keith Butler was struggling with it.
In particular, Butler was disconcerted with positioning himself around the basket, something he never had to do in high school due to his large presence.
Three games into the season, Butler has seen limited action, averaging 18 minutes per game despite being one of only two legitimate post players on the team.
Fortunately, freshman Antywane Robinson has been formidable both down low and up top in the zone.
At 6-foot-8 with a giant wingspan and impressive leaping ability, he is capable of blocking shots and rebounding down low.
His impact is tantamount at the top of the zone, since he is able to move quickly on the dribble and disrupt passing lanes.
Chaney’s willingness to start three freshmen displays both his confidence and desperation for a team that is short-handed for the first portion of the season, due to the ineligible Brian Polk.
“I think this team is a year away in terms of what they can be,” Chaney conceded.
“We play different teams, but look at scores of games teams play against us, as opposed to scores they have against other teams. Very few teams score 80 points against us.”
Jason Haslam can be reached at Jasonhaslam@yahoo.com.