On paper, there’s nothing particularly intimidating about the Long Beach State women’s basketball team’s defense. They don’t have a premier ball-stopper or shot-blocker and only one all-conference defender on the roster–they don’t have any national leaderboard or conference-leading players in the defensive statistical categories.
Yet somehow the Beach entered last weekend’s series against UC Santa Barbara No. 6 in the nation in steals per game (12.1) and in the midst of their best start to a season in 15 years (11-1, 10-0), thanks mostly to outstanding defensive play. The answer to “how” is the defensive system they run, one that’s been handed down from generation to generation, that highlights team strengths as opposed to individual ones.
“Defense is our foundation and our staple,” said LBSU head coach Jeff Cammon. “It’s what allowed us to keep our head above water last year and it’s what’s allowed for this start this year. We’re winning on defensive identity.”
Every defensive system has its own genealogy, and Long Beach State’s dates back 25 years ago, to when Cammon was playing for Jeff Klein at Upland High, with his future boss Derek Wynn as one of the team’s assistants. The Highlanders ran an aggressive matchup zone that Klein has since ridden to big success coaching the Chaffey junior college men’s basketball team for the last two decades.
Klein became the youngest head coach in SoCal high school basketball history when he took over South Pasadena High at 23 years old. At South Pas and Upland, he developed his matchup zone to highlight team intellect and depth over athleticism.
“A lot of the stuff that we do is stuff that coach Klein did,” said Cammon. Cammon began his collegiate coaching career at Chaffey with Klein, and while an assistant coach at Long Beach State under Jody and Derek Wynn, Cammon suggested to them that they implement the system.
“The defense is called red zone, and I watched a practice of coach Klein’s at Chaffey and told Jody and Derek, we have to put this in. To Jody’s credit, she allowed me to.”
Like all matchup zones, the defense combines man-to-man and zone concepts. The defense has a base zone defense, but the on-ball defender plays tight on the ball as though it were man-to-man. The wrinkle that red zone implements is a more multiple look, meaning that the Beach can switch into a softer zone or a zone of a different shape, or they can become much more aggressive around the perimeter. The team also has a few different press looks they can run for 94 feet of opponent frustration.
The result is that the team’s strength is its cohesivenes and intelligence, along with length on the perimeter that Cammon recruited specifically to fit the system. It’s also a defense that’s frustrating for teams, as anyone who’s seen a Beach game this year can tell.
“We don’t have a lot of stoppers one on one,” said Cammon. “What we have is older kids who understand our scheme. If it’s executed well we’re dictating tempo by speeding teams up or slowing them down, by making people take tough shots, by getting in passing lanes to create turnovers.”
Cammon said that he and Wynn first put the defense in because of shortcomings in the Beach roster, but that it’s proven successful enough to recruit players who fit into its concepts.
“We didn’t have great natural defenders so we wanted to use the tools at our disposal, our length and size and experience,” he said. “It can play mind games and get teams on their heels so they’re not attacking off instinct. We want people to overthink. At the same time it’s a huge adjustment because it’s three or four defenses and you have to be able to do all of them well or it doesn’t work.”
It’s working well as the perfect team defense for a team that’s fully bought into it. The Beach don’t have a top two player in the Big West in steals, but they do have five of the top 13 players. They’re also the conference’s top scoring defense, allowing just 56.4 points per game.
The other key component is having a field general that the coaches trust. The gameplan for each opponent is put in during film and scout, but part of the plan is to switch defenses in the moment for maximum effect. Cammon said he and his co-defensive coach Bryan Camacho have full trust in junior Justina King.
“She’s an extension of us, she makes sure we’re all in the right defense,” said Cammon. “We trust her a lot to make adjustments based on the feel of the game. It’s important to have that voice on the floor because in past years we’ve had someone in zone, someone in man.”
King is certainly not just a defensive player–she had 17 points and nine assists in last Saturday’s win over UCSB–but said she enjoys having a leadership role on that end of the court.
“We do a good job of dicatting what other teams do, it’s about flying around and deciding what we want the other team to do,” she said.
The Beach will have its biggest test of the season this week as they host UC Davis in a battle of Big West unbeatens, with first-place bragging rights on the line in a pair of 4 p.m. games in the Walter Pyramid on Friday and Saturday.