Temple's defense even has its own vernacular. Members of the Owl family speak of how they "defend the second pass," the pass two moves ahead that they try to anticipate and intercept. They speak of the "body stop," which is what a defender should lay on an opponent who has entered his zone, in accordance with Temple's man-to-man principles. They instinctively scream, "Pickup, matchup!"—a call to go man-to-man and deny any pass the moment the dribbler picks up the ball. They speak of "the rover," the player at the back of the 1-3-1 who must quickly get out to the corners. And there's Chaney's ceaseless mantra, "Recovery!"
"You're going to get beat," Chaney says, "but are you going to recover to a better position with your next slide? Recovery is the most important thing in defense, as it is in life." That allusion is no accident, for tragedy has struck Temple three times over the past two years: Assistant coach Jim Maloney died of a heart attack in May 1996; athletic director Dave O'Brien's nine-year-old son, Michael, died in a car accident last August; and Marvin Webster Jr., the Owls' sophomore center, died of a heart attack a week after Michael O'Brien's death. The zone is the one defense with a philosophy encrypted in it, especially as taught by Chaney, whose approach to the game is that of a Zen master, albeit not a very serene one.
Beating Temple requires a holistic sensibility. "You needed to be able to see the entire defense when you made a pass," says Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe, who faced the Temple zone as a guard at Rutgers in the '80s. "You had to see the guy guarding you and where the help was coming from."
Other keys to unshackling a team from Chaney's chains: Try to get the ball into the lane, just below the foul line. Make your threes, even if you have to launch them from 22 rather than 20 feet. And hope your guards play with poise. Temple lost seven of eight games against Atlantic 10 archrival Massachusetts between 1994 and '97, when either Edgar Padilla or Carmelo Travieso (or both) were in the Minutemen's backcourt. This season, with neither of those steady hands around, UMass was swept in its two meetings with the Owls. "You end up playing their game," said Minutemen sophomore point guard Monty Mack after a 61-47 loss to Temple on Feb. 3. "If you've never played against it before, there's no way to prepare for it."
Despite all the evidence of the zone's effectiveness, most college players don't like playing it because they want to get busy auditioning for the NBA, where the zone is banned. Then there's that matter of testosterone. "Kids like taking the responsibility of saying, 'I'm going to stop this guy,' and in a zone a player doesn't get that feeling of individual accomplishment," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "But I'm sure players at Temple get that feeling. If Temple spent as much time playing man-to-man, they'd do well at that too."
In fact the biggest reason that today's player doesn't like zones is probably that he can't consistently beat them. "Against a zone he tends to stymie himself," says Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton. "He doesn't move, doesn't pass and therefore doesn't score." That's hardly surprising, given that he doesn't see zones in the AAU and summer-camp worlds in which he is immersed before coming to campus. Meanwhile the skills (passing and shooting) and attitude (patience) required to beat a zone are in diminishing supply. As the game boils down more and more to two shots—the dunk and the three—the medium-range jumper, so often available to teams willing to work surgically against a zone, is a vanishing art.
"These days zones hurt people not necessarily because of the way they're played but because they're just not played very often, " says Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who has deployed the defense as well as any coach this season. "Teams don't work on zone offense every day in practice. The notion that you're not a man's man if you play a zone is ridiculous. Sometimes we let our egos get in the way of our brains."
So we should keep in mind the zone as we head to San Antone, and remember a lesson of the Alamo: All the swagger in the world won't necessarily keep you from losing.