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Coaches Network: How to Choose Whether to Play Zone Or Man-to-Man Defense

  • Date:
    Sep 25, 2015


Every youth basketball coach has his or her own reasons for playing a certain style on the court. Of course, a little guidance from veteran coaches doesn’t hurt. And so, here is this week’s question for the USA Basketball Coaches Network: 

When it comes to team defense, what are the determining factors -- roster composition, opponents' strengths, overall situation, etc. -- in deciding whether to play zone defense or man-to-man?

Don Showalter, head coach, Iowa City High School (Iowa)

I think coaches need to evaluate regularly what defense is the best to use taking into consideration size, quickness, opponents and strengths of your team.

Part of coaching high school players is determining what the strengths are in order to maximize the potential of your team. Just because you as a coach are a man-to-man coach doesn't mean zone defense should not be used -- or if you are more of a zone defense coach, that doesn’t mean man-to-man shouldn’t also be considered.

A good zone team is one that has some length and size, so they take up passing lanes in a zone defense. Many teams do not spend much time on zone offense, so zone defense for a period of time can be a disrupting factor for the offense.

If the opponent is not a very good perimeter shooting team, this will lend itself to playing more zone.

Another consideration is rebounding. Many times, playing zone defense is suspect to a good offensive rebounding team. There are a lot of zone defenses to consider playing, too, depending on the strength, size, and length of your team.


Sue Phillips, head coach, Archbishop Mitty High School (Calif.)

Our defense is designed around three concepts: 1) the ability to adjust; 2) effective variation; and 3) player investment.

We believe those three characteristics are the keys to having a successful defensive system. Regardless of our personnel, we will play a variety of defenses. Our personnel, however, will dictate the differences in zone looks or pressing schemes. For example, we will play a 1-3-1 zone for a long and athletic lineup, but run a 2-3 zone if our personnel’s lateral mobility is limited or we want to protect the foul-prone player.

The ability to adjust translates in one of two ways. It can be as simple as changing schemes with the same personnel. It is crucial to be able to do this from the bench without having to burn a timeout. For example, change from player-on-player to a half-court zone trap off a free throw attempt. The other adjustment alternative is to substitute off the bench and run the same player-to-player scheme with different personnel. Perhaps your subs are better suited for a full court player-to-player scheme, because they apply greater defensive pressure with their length and quickness.

Effective variation affords us the latitude in options when needing to make critical game adjustments. Variation could be something as simple as giving different looks on defending an on-ball screens or something more complicated such as switching defenses based on made or missed baskets. A benefit of effective variation is greater offensive efficiency. Working on changing defenses in practice improves your team’s ability to pick up reads and different schemes. On game day, we rarely come across a defensive scheme that we have not drilled against in practice.

Player investment implies that your defensive system is one that your players believe in and want to execute. You are what you emphasize. So if one of our players takes a charge in a game, they get to dictate their minutes for that quarter. Defense that creates offense is fun, fast, and free. In turn, we will always have a full-court pressure package to increase tempo and create some easy transition baskets. Offense is fun and it sells tickets, but it’s defense that wins championships.

Brian Robinson, head coach, Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School (N.C.)

We typically will start each season teaching man-to-man principles. We fill as though zone concepts are really just man-to-man principles taught in a specific area on the court. We then see how well and how quickly the team understands the requirements to play man-to-man correctly (closing out, rotation assignments, post defense, screens, etc.) and then make decisions on what our strengths and weaknesses are.

We will typically decide which defense to play in games determined by the situation and opponent, but we feel better when we know we can always fall back to playing solid, half-court man-to-man. 


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