For The Frustrated Coaches That Turn to Zone Defense

By Joe Haefner

This article is meant for coaches at all levels, especially youth, junior high, and junior varsity.

If you have ever gotten frustrated with your man to man defense and decided to use zone because it was easier to implement, I had an experience early in my coaching career where being persistent with the fundamentals and using the long-term approach paid off.

When I was a senior in college, I had an accounting internship close to my hometown and decided to become an assistant coach for the freshmen basketball team at my former high school.  I was an assistant to my Dad.  

At the beginning of the season, he had gotten frustrated because he couldn’t get the kids to play man to man defense and decided to go play some zone. Haven’t we all been there?

At the beginning of the season, we played a team called Marion from Iowa that was quite talented. We got trounced by something like 67-22. The funny thing is that it could’ve been much worse.

So my dad and I met, because we wanted to figure out what was best for the team.  We decided when we modified our short-term and long-term plans that we would always ask ourselves…

What can we do to prepare this team for the varsity level?

Who cares about wins and losses, how much we get beat by, and what any of the parents and spectators think.  What can we do to make this team better in the long-run?

We knew that we had to focus on man to man defense and fundamentals of the game.  We also had to spend time TEACHING the game rather than just running tons of drills.  

We knew even if they wanted to play zone at the varsity level, they needed to have these fundamentals pounded into them in order to be successful.

There’s a saying that goes “If you can’t play man, you can’t play zone.”

Some coaches believe that they can hide poor defenders within a zone. Sometimes, this is true, but when you face a quality opponent, they will exploit your poor defensive players.  Also, a zone isn’t very effective if you can’t stop the ball. 

So, we knew that man to man defense was the right way to go.

Day to day we saw little improvements and all of the sudden those little improvements turned into a huge improvement over the season.

Well, it comes to the end of the season and guess who we get to face. The same undefeated Marion team that smoked us by 45 points at the beginning of the year. This was a totally different game.  We were staying between the man and the hoop when playing the ball, communicating, rotating on defense, and forcing low-percentage shots.

All of the sudden, it’s the 4th quarter and we’re winning by 2 points!! Unfortunately, some balls didn’t roll our way and we ended up losing by 4 points. It was like 46 – 42 or something like that.

When I was riding home, I just got goosebumps all over, because it felt so good to see that team which had such little confidence at the beginning of the year learn that they could compete with anybody by playing the right way.

Four years later, the same group of kids ended up beating that same Marion team for the first time! I believe Marion was ranked 6th in the state at the time.

Was part of that rooted back to when we pounded the fundamentals in them when they were Freshmen? I like to think so.

Stay persistent and focus on the fundamentals of the game. It may not pay off today. It may not pay off this season. It may not pay off next year, but it will pay off in the long-run.

If you would like to learn more about defense and how to build your defense from the ground up, take a look at our Man to Man Defense System.

5 Comments

  1. Joe Whipp — March 11, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    My current middle school JV team (6th and 7th graders) started last year together. They had only ever played zone in the youth leagues. They were not very good at it either. I believe in playing man to man.

    I started them at the very basic levels of stance, footwork, and 1 on 1 position drills. I graduated them to 2 on 2 drills working on stance, footwork, deny. Then, added, help and recover. Then we moved to 3 on 3 drills. I continued the progression throughout the year. We finished the year at 5-11.

    This season, I reviewed the concepts we learned the previous year and continued the progression, only I added points to the defense for calling out each of their assignments as they did them “close out”, “deny”, “help”, “recover”, “screen”, “switch”, “challenge”, “box out”, etc.

    We went 15-4 and won the championship beating a team that we lost to twice during the regular season.

    The time spent on defense and fundamentals will pay you back more than anything else you can work on. As our defense improved, so did our offense. The offense had to work harder and find new ways to score against our ever improving defense.

    The girls started to “get it”. During the last half of the year, rarely did we run through an offensive set. From practicing against a well versed defense, they began to recognize weaknesses on the other team’s defense and attacked it with incredible results. Our scoring improved, our offensive rebounding improved, our shot selection improved, the list goes on and on.

    Even though we do not practice against zone, they even recognized weaknesses in zones and attacked zones even more effectively than against man defense.

    Some of you may not like the next philosophy, and it probably won’t work for every team. Because our half court defense was so strong, I stopped sending four people to the offensive rebounds and kept two back to prevent the other team’s transition and forced them to score against our defense. I would pull my 3 off with my 1 unless she was already under the basket and send my 2 through any gap she could find. She ended up being my top offensive rebounder and was second on the team in total rebounds.

    Late in the year our offense even found a way to transition against a 2 man back defense. How did we do that? Fundamentals! We taught our girls how to pivot, dribble out of trouble, and find the guards. The weak side was off and running.

    At the beginning of the year, for example, let’s say we won 38-22. I would have girls asking me, “How many points did I score?” I simply answered, “I don’t know, but I know how many you gave up, 22. You had 15 rebounds, 5 forced turnovers, etc. I rewarded the defensive achievements first and gave them the most praise. I then praised and rewarded good passing, decision making, shot selection, and assists on the offense. I gave little mention to scoring leaders.

    I had one girl through the first 8 games averaging 16 points per game. She only averaged 9 over the rest of the season. She never once complained, because she was getting rewarded for decision making, passing, assists. Our scoring average was 5 points higher in the second half of the year and our scoring defense was 4 points lower.

  2. mike wallace — January 20, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    The best reason for not using zone defense. Once a clever coach figures out how to breakdown your zone your kids won’t have the skills to adjust on defense and they won’t be able to adjust during a game and stop the ball.

  3. Marc — January 18, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    How about for 5 to 6 year old beginners????

  4. Che — January 23, 2011 @ 5:28 am

    we just had a tournament and a team we played 2-3, we scored right away and “tried” to pull them out of the zone. we were able to do this for half the game because we were up. they then switched to a 1-3-1. i again had my guards dribbling at the top of the key and the arch. is it bad coaching to pull the zone defense to play man to man. or is it smart coaching? since we made them play how we wanted them to? we did up end winning by 6.

  5. Across the Wire (Tuesday, Oct. 22nd) | 5 State Hoops — October 22, 2013 @ 6:03 am

    […] For the Frustrated Coaches that turn to Zone Defenses @BreakthruBball […]

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