LOS ANGELES -- UCLA is headed to Oregon and you can be sure the Bruins will be bringing along a zone defense, but they are hoping they don't need it.
Coach Ben Howland built his reputation on tough, man-to-man defense, but reluctantly installed a zone with this season's team when early-season defensive deficiencies forced his hand. But almost as suddenly as it appeared, the zone has disappeared from the UCLA playbook during UCLA's current three-game win streak.
The Bruins played entirely man-to-man Sunday against USC, all but about two possessions of man defense against Arizona State and played only about 10 possessions of zone against Arizona.
"I thought the last three games our man defense has done well for us," Howland said. "I think we’ve played about 10 or 12 possessions of zone in the last three games and our defense has improved, which is good. We’re getting better and hopefully we can improve on that."
The Bruins are plugging better, staying in front of the ball better and playing more physical man-to-man defense leading to the improvement, Howland said, but it's not as if the zone was faltering. In fact UCLA's switch to a zone after about five minutes spurred a comeback in a victory over Richmond and nearly spurred another in a one-point loss at Stanford.
UCLA's zone was effective in a victory over Pennsylvania and the Bruins alternated zone and man-to-man in victories against Eastern Washington, UC Davis and UC Irvine.
"We actually like to play whatever works for whatever matchups we have," center Anthony Stover said. "Some teams it’s better for us to zone, some teams it’s easier for us to man."
Lately, however, the man has been quite effective. The Bruins held USC to 36 percent shooting and held Arizona to 36.2 percent. The players say its just a matter of figuring out their defensive assignments and knowing how to react in certain situations when playing man.
Early on that wasn't the case. Four of UCLA's first seven opponents shot better than 50 percent against the Bruins and two shot better than 60 percent. Only one of the last 10 opponents has topped 50 percent.
"I just think we weren’t used to playing together, we didn’t know our roles," forward Travis Wear said. "But now that we’ve gotten used to each other, it’s definitely helped us. There’s more urgency and we understand our rotations better. If a big goes to help, another guard has to come down and take his man. We were breaking down a little bit on that in the beginning and our bigs weren’t coming over to help as much and now we are."
That's not to say the zone is gone for good. Howland hinted he might even use it on the Oregon road trip Thursday at Oregon State or Saturday at Oregon, depending on the matchups and how the man defense is playing.
"There may be times where we’re going to zone them," Howland said. "They provide matchup problems."
Having both in their pockets is a benefit. Penn, Eastern Washington, UC Davis and UC Irvine -- teams that saw a hefty combination of both man and zone from UCLA -- combined to shoot 33.2 percent against the Bruins with two of them shooting below 26 percent.
"We’re known as a mainly man-to-man team, so when we come out in a zone sometimes, I think that definitely throws the other team off a little bit because they haven’t game planned for us to play a zone," forward David Wear said.
Still, zone is a four-letter word in Howland's vocabulary. He doesn't like using it, but guard Lazeric Jones said that means little when wins and losses are at stake.
"Our man has been working, but if it comes down to it sometimes we have to run our zone," Jones said. "It’s not really pride issue right now, it’s just whatever works. I’m sure [Howland] may not like it as much, but when the win comes around, it’s the same old smile on his face regardless if it was man-to-man or zone."