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February 21, 2014

ISU in zone … not the kind they want

Zone defense becoming obstacle Sycamores must contend with

The canary was Evansville and the coal mine was Hulman Center on Wednesday.

When a team as zone defense-aversive as Evansville — it was estimated after ISU’s 59-54 victory that the Purple Aces have employed a zone perhaps three times all season until Wednesday — uses it to keep the Sycamores’ offense from flowing, it’s a sure sign that ISU can expect to see zones from every opponent through to the end of the season.

ISU’s poor 3-point shooting is reason teams in the Missouri Valley Conference are salivating to throw their 2-3s against the Sycamores. ISU is ninth in MVC-only 3-point shooting at 31.3 percent. It’s a long fall from late December, when ISU was one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country.

Opponents are not only daring ISU to shoot over their zones, but it’s having the double-effect of freezing movement from the Sycamores to bust the zone. ISU’s offense was flowing along nicely in a 16-5 start against the Purple Aces, but once the zone was employed, the Sycamores ground to a halt.

Because ISU is a dyed-in-the-wool man-to-man defensive team, the Sycamores don’t practice against zone defenses very often. That changed on Thursday. ISU spent much of practice working on how to break zones.

ISU point guard Jake Odum stressed that it takes “reps” to get used to attacking the zone. There’s other ways and means the Sycamores need to improve at as well.

“I think we have to loosen up a little bit. We play too tentative. We need to get the ball in the middle and take chances a little bit more. We’re a little bit complacent trying to make the right decision instead of making a quick one,” Odum said.

After the Sycamores went to zone school on Thursday, ideas on how to best deal with it were in abundance.

“You want to attack the gap on the second or third reversal. Or at least look off in the gaps and look to a guy to go into the gaps,” ISU guard Devonte Brown said.

“We’ve seen extended 2-3 and packed-in 2-3 zones. When they’re packed in, you have to swing the ball a couple of times and find the open gap. When they’re extended, you have to attack it early,” Odum said.

Lansing added a few more wrinkles.

“You have to move the defense with your eyes and with pass-fakes. You have to manipulate the defense. You have to make two guys guard you, and the biggest thing, is you can’t let it paralyze you. You can’t just catch it and hold it. That’s a zone’s friend. And you can’t just settle for 3’s,” he said.

ISU has been guilty of both of the latter two sins. The limbo ISU’s shooters have been in is the notion that they make just enough 3-point shots to believe their MVC shooting slump will come to an end and the Sycamores will revert to pre-conference form. But the shooting percentages say otherwise.

“You just have to keep working on it. You have to get up enough shots on your own and our guys do that,” Lansing said. “I want our guys to be loose and free on the offensive end and take shots when they’re open. We have good shooters who can make shots.”

Today’s opponent is Missouri State and the Bears (17-10, 7-8) aren’t known for being a zone team either. But ISU (21-6, 12-3) expects to see zone at JQH Arena today.

They also expect to see a Bears team steeled by adversity. Missouri State has been plagued by injuries all season long and head coach Paul Lusk has done a nice job keeping the Bears in contention for a top-half league spot.

Hard-working swingman Keith Pickens recently returned to action. As did freshman center Tyler McCullough. Forward Jarmar Gulley (15.1) provides the scoring punch.

“They’re like their head coach. They’re tough, hard to play against and they’re smart basketball players. Paul’s done an unbelievable job dealing with what they’re dealing with,” Lansing said.

ISU’s fortunes at Missouri State are famously bad. The Sycamores are 5-25 in Springfield, though two of the wins have come since JQH Arena opened during the 2008-09 season.

If ISU wants to keep alive faint hopes of a NCAA Tournament at-large bid, the scenario is simple. It must win all of its remaining games and make it to the MVC Tournament championship game.

In that event, ISU would be 27-7 overall, but even if that were to occur, the Sycamores are considered a significant long shot to get a bid due to a lack of quality wins and a nonconference schedule that turned out to be more sour than anticipated.

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