A zone defense takes some of the fun out of basketball. Instead of one-on-one duels and fearless drives down the middle of the lane, you get a lot of passing about 30 feet away from the basket.
Harvard men's basketball coach Frank McLaughlin is generally a fun guy, but this season he has relied increasingly on a variety of zones to compensate for the Crimson's lack of lightning speed. In Saturday's 75-73 loss to UMass, McLaughlin avoided man-to-man for almost the entire game. He was happy with the results, but the strategy has its weaknesses.
For long stretches in the first half against the Minutemen, the Crimson failed to challenge UMass sharpshooters Craig Smith and Donald Russell. With no one in particular harassing him, Smith, a 6-ft., 4-in. swingman, pumped in 14 points before the buzzer forced him to sit down and take a rest.
Harvard successfully collapsed on the UMass big men underneath the basket, but the Minutemen responded by stepping up their barrage of mid-range jumpers in the second half. Surprisingly, the Crimson also lost the battle of the offensive boards and let a smaller team win the overall rebounding war, 24-19.
McLaughlin thought the experiment with the zone worked well and promised that the Crimson would try it again against other quick teams. Looking a little glum after dropping an intra-family contest to brother Tom, the UMass coach, he complained that each of the Crimson's last three losses came against teams hitting close to 60 per cent of their shots from the floor.
True, the Minutemen did pull off a 57-per-cent performance (versus a respectable 50 per cent for the Crimson), but part of that may be connected to Harvard's lapses into complacency in the zone. When Smith and Russell continued their hot-dogging heroism in the second half, a little man-to-man pressure might have been just the thing to bring them down to earth.
Defense did not lose this game for the Crimson; a string of missed freethrows in the closing minutes did. In fact, the zone looked damned impressive at times.
Using a 3-2 formation with forward Donald Fleming directing the show from the middle of the front line, the Crimson consistently forced the UMass ballhandlers to camp out far above the key and still managed to keep an eye on action under the basket.
The recently unveiled three-quarter-court zone press also succeeded. Fleming and freshman guard Kyle Standley have worked out a deadly sideline trap, and they sprung it flawlessly throughout the second half. Most encouraging of all, the Crimson made smooth transitions from the press to their zone positions.
Perhaps the zone would work more effectively if combined with a periodic burst of man-to-man coverage, at least until the hoopsters "pull closer together and work a little harder on the team defense," as Fleming said they must do before the Ivy season begins in earnest next month.