Front line propels Baylor's zone

HOUSTON -- How long is 22 feet?

As long as a motor home or a sailboat, the height of a two-story building, or the width of a two-lane highway.

Fingertip-to-fingertip, 22 feet is also the wingspan of the Baylor Bears' front line.

That's nearly half the length of the baseline and longer than the distance from the baseline to the top of the 3-point arc.

Now ask why Baylor plays zone defense full-time.

"I mean, we've got 6-10, 6-11, 7-foot down there," said the 6-10 Ekpe Udoh, whose 7-foot-4½ wingspan is the longest of the trio that includes forward Anthony Jones and center Josh Lomers, both of whom also stretch beyond the 7-foot barrier. "We'll just let defensive field goal percentages do the talking for us."

It's now top-seeded Duke's job to solve third-seeded Baylor's amorphous-like zone that's allowed 38.3 percent shooting this season and 37.1 percent in the NCAA tournament. With a Final Four berth on the line, the Blue Devils (32-5) and Bears (28-7) meet for the first time Sunday afternoon at Baylor-friendly Reliant Stadium.

If the Bears move on, the zone will probably have once again short-circuited an excellent shooting team.

"I don't know all the answers. We need to figure it out [at Saturday's practice]," Duke guard Jon Scheyer said. "Their length has a lot to do with it and the way they play their zone, they do a really good job."

Scott Drew's decision to scrap the man-to-man approach and implement what Baylor coaches call a zone defense with man-to-man principles might go down as his shrewdest move. Since the switch prior to last season's Big 12 tournament, when the Bears were just 17-13 and had flatlined during the Big 12 season, Baylor has won 35 of 44 games.

Drew made the move with an eye toward this season, when Udoh and 6-10 sophomore Jones would take over starting roles.

Along with Syracuse, Baylor is one of the only teams in the nation to play zone almost exclusively. Constantly shifting shape and strategy to adjust to the opponent's strength, the zone -- with no small tip of the cap to Udoh, who set the Big 12 single-season blocks record -- has flipped Baylor's defensive statistics and transformed the offensively gifted Bears into a team that can also dominate with smothering defense.

"It's like night and day," said Baylor assistant coach Mark Morefield, who has been with Drew since they coached together at Valparaiso, where they employed a similar zone. "Last year we just weren't getting things done defensively on a man-to-man basis. This goes back to Valpo and is kind of a throwback to Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV with Larry Johnson, basically a shifting, matchup zone with man-to-man principles. It's not your basic zone to where you just stand there in one spot and wave your hands."

Sometimes it looks like a 2-3 zone, sometimes like a 1-1-3, but whatever configuration, the Baylor zone always attacks. Guards Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn and reserve A.J. Walton are aggressors, always active and quickly closing out on the shooter to take away the 3-point shot.

"It's a tough defense to play, it's a tough defense to score on and it's a tough defense to prepare for," Carter said.

Baylor's long, athletic wings have the ability to defend out to the corners and up to the free throw line, or they can keep the zone compact and defend the rim with their long arms.

"In a perfect world when you have more length, especially your wings in a zone, it makes things a lot easier because it's easier to contest shots," Morefield said. "You can be maybe a step late, but now you have some length, you can get a hand up and contest."

In Baylor's 72-49 win over Saint Mary's on Friday, the Gaels' sharpshooters were goaded into taking shots from bad angles or forced to pass. Saint Mary's missed 10 of 12 3-point attempts in the first half and finished 6-of-22. While disrupting the 3-point shot, the Bears' tall and long back line was able to surround high-scoring center Omar Samhan and frustrate him into 1-of-8 shooting in the first half.

"Against Saint Mary's, with great shooters, we had to keep the zone wide. On teams who are more attack oriented, we keep it compact, keep them out of the paint and make sure we box out," Walton said. "Against Duke, we have to be aware of where Jon Scheyer is and [Kyle] Singler. Wherever they are, we have to stay on them and just make sure we box out."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will have a game plan ready to try to exploit open spaces within the zone. Unlike Saint Mary's, Sam Houston State and Old Dominion each had success finding seams in the zone for good looks in the paint and took Baylor down to the final minutes.

"We need to go inside and out," Scheyer said. "You get better looks when you go inside and then out. We can have some great looks inside with our bigs. The main key against the zone is to be patient."

If not, 22 feet of wingspan just might carry the Bears to Indianapolis for their first Final Four.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.