Cal men’s basketball tasked with solving Mike Hopkins’ zone defense

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The zone defense is arguably the trickiest puzzle in all of college basketball. Whether it be the standard 2-3 or the more unconventional 1-3-1, the use of a zone scheme, combined with the lack of a “three in the key” rule, can set fire to a coach’s game plan.

Cal men’s basketball is no stranger to the zone, both utilizing it and having to play against it on multiple occasions, but against a Mike Hopkins-led Washington team, the Bears will be in for a defensive juggernaut like no other.

Hopkins spent 22 years as an assistant of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who was famous for his utilization of the zone defense. Since taking his talents from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest, Hopkins has stuck with the zone, a defensive philosophy that has helped usher in a new chapter of excellence in Seattle.

In Hopkins’ first season at the helm, the Huskies finished 73rd in the country in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.5 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. This season, they are currently ranked 39th and are allowing 94.7 points per 100 possessions.

Washington has especially put down the clamps during its six-game winning streak, holding its opponents to 61.8 points on just 40.2 percent shooting while also forcing 15.8 turnovers.

The Huskies have capable defenders up and down their roster, but the man at the center of it all is senior Matisse Thybulle, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the best stopper in the country.

Thybulle has all the tools of an elite defender. Not only does Thybulle stand at 6’5” with a freakishly long 7’ wingspan, but he has phenomenal instincts that allow him to rack up blocks and steals like nobody’s business.

There is a long list of stats and accolades that can be thrown out to express the degree of Thybulle’s defensive prowess, but there’s one that sticks out above all: one. That’s the number of players in the entire country averaging both two steals and two blocks per game.

In 17 games this season, Thybulle is averaging 2.7 steals and 2.2 blocks. Should he keep up those averages, he’ll be the first player in a Power Five conference to average two blocks and two steals since Nerlens Noel in his lone season at Kentucky.

Thybulle has already secured the program record for most career steals, with 252 and counting. With 140 career blocks, he also has the chance to break Chris Welp’s program record of 186.

For the Bears, Thybulle and company are the last thing they want to see. While Washington has won six straight games, Cal has dropped six straight games, with no end in sight.

The usual ailment of defense hasn’t been the only aspect of the Bears’ game that’s holding them back. During this losing streak, Cal is averaging 69.8 points and shooting 40.1 percent from the field, with 33.9 percent from deep.

Making matters worse, Cal hasn’t had much success going against zone defenses this season. When the Bears haven’t been able to penetrate the zone, they’ve ended up settling for threes that come late in the shot clock. If the once again fail to crack the zone, get the ball into the high post and work from there, it may just be another long night for the Bears.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.