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Man To Man Defense: Even if you Play Zone

Man To Man Defense

Man To Man Defense – A Must

When I coached high school basketball in Metuchen we spent a ton of time reaching out to the youth basketball community in the area in order to help the players develop the fundamental skills they needed to grow into solid basketball players.  This not only helped the players improve but also fostered a sense of belonging for the young basketball players, a feeling that they were part of a bigger picture that included the community and its basketball program.  One of the fundamental concepts that I strove to incorporate at all levels of basketball from the youth up was man to man defense.   No matter what type of defense you play, having the ability to play man to man and actually understand its concepts will make your defense much better as a whole.  With that in mind, I remember vividly two conversations that I had during the time that really baffled me.  

Man To Man Defense Conversation #1

The first was with the head of a local youth basketball league that I approached about the possibility of me doing Coaches’ Clinic for the recreational coaches in the league.  My goal was to teach the coaches something new about basketball but also to get them to teach their players many of the same fundamental offensive and defensive principles that I use at the high school.  This way, when the younger players reached the high school level, they would have a solid base to build upon.  When I told him this, he prompted me to be more specific.  As I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to focus on man defensive principles since that seems to be one of the most glaring weaknesses in all of the players when they start high school basketball.  So I told him that, and his response was both shocking and frustrating.  He told me that would not be a good idea because they do not allow any team to play man defense in their league, only zone.  I asked him how it was possible to play zone defense if his players did not know how to play man defense. He did not seem to understand my question, so  I explained to him that any zone defense (if you want it to be an effective zone) needed to apply man defensive principles because you had to guard the man in your area whether he had the ball or not.  Furthermore, the off the ball principles for a zone required the help and recovery principles that a good man to man defense employed.  Even as I explained these concepts to him, it still did not register, so I ended the conversation before my frustration elevated.

Man To Man Conversation #2

Fast forward, to another conversation I had, this time with an eighth grade basketball player whom I was explaining that it takes the majority of the basketball players that come into the high school 2 1/2 to 3 seasons before they truly understand the man defensive concepts that we are trying to teach.  This player, believing that he was a great defensive player, took my statement as an insult and tried to tell me that there was no way that was possible.  The team he plays for plays a lot of zone and I told him that as a result he and his teammates knew very little about man defense.  His response was, “What’s so difficult about man defense? All you have to do is guard your man.”  At this point, I rested my case.  Man to Man defense is so much more than just guarding your man but this notion is lost on many players who grow up playing nothing but zone defense where they are taught to guard the man in their area.  Ultimately, this begs the question, is zone defense killing our youth’s ability to learn how to play man defense?  The answer…a resounding yes.

Youth Basketball Coaches and Man to Man Defense

It would appear to me that very few coaches are doing their part in teaching sound man defensive concepts.  Man defense is not simply guarding your man.  Man defense requires each one of the five players to guard the ball and their man.  This includes playing defense one, two, or three men off the ball.  These concepts are lost on much of today’s youth basketball players and the coaches that coach them.  Zone defense at the youth level is an easy way to get the players to play defense, but easy can also be translated into lazy. Players are encouraged to guard their “zone” or their “area on the court”.  Very little is said about getting up and guarding the ball when it is in your area or providing help when the ball is not in your area.  This can also be seen at the high school level where when teams play zone, guys no longer guard the ball nor sprint to spots off the ball, thereby allowing the zone to get carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. 

Understanding Man / Help Defense Responsibilities

Good man to man defense, if done correctly should resemble a zone.  There should be plenty of pressure on the ball and if you are off the ball, it should be stressed that you “sprint to your spots.”  What exactly does that mean?  It means that good defensive players on and off the ball react on the pivot and not the pass and then sprint to where they need to be.  I always told my guys to imagine that they have a string tied to the man with the ball  and the man that they are guarding and that they must be in line with that string at all times.  They should also rotate over into a position on the court where they can provide early help on the ball if the defensive man guarding him gets beat off the dribble.  My guys are coached to meet the dribble penetration, not wait for it to come to them.  If done properly, this will allow your team to keep the ball out of the lane and also draw some charges if the ball handler does not stop his penetration.  Early help also allows for early recovery, meaning that if they meet penetration early enough the original ball defender can recover to his man quicker and the help defender can close out to his new spot earlier as well.  On the ball reversal, all players must, once again, sprint to their new spots on their string closing out with active hands and active feet.  This cohesiveness amongst all defending players will prevent dribble penetration, contest shots, and deflect possible passes potentially leading to steals.

Man To Man Defense Principles For Zone Applications

These  are sound man to man principles that should also be applied to zone defense.  Coaches playing zone defense, no matter which one it is, need to teach these man to man principles to their players prior to even considering playing zone.  Do so will create a far more effective and efficient zone defense that applies pressure to the man being guarded and early help early recovery principles off the ball.  Think about some of the great zone defenses that have been played over the years:  Temple’s zone under Chaney, Syracuse’s zone under Boeheim, and finally, the amoeba zone that Tarkanian used to run at UNLV.  All of those zones are active, aggressive, and based on good man to man principles. 

Man To Man Defense Long Term Impact

So why is it that players today have a hard time understanding man to man defense? Simply stated, they are not being taught correctly at the lower levels because they are constantly playing a zone without a true understanding of it.  As a result, today’s younger players actually believe that playing man to man defense means guarding your man.  In fact, it does not; it means guarding the ball and your man.  This idea alone is very zone oriented because it requires you to be more zone-like when your man does not have the ball, meaning that they must be in early help position.  Teaching this concept is almost impossible by simply playing zone defense at the youth level which is often taught as “guard the man in your area.”  Younger players must be taught to get into a position defensively guard the ball, provide early help, and recover quickly to their own ma.  With this in mind, guarding your man is not the difficult aspect of man to man defense to understand.  It is all of the “off the ball” aspects that most players have trouble with; the idea of where they should be when their  man does not have the ball.  This is the very nature of a proper zone defense and these “off the ball” concepts, along with defending the ball itself, desperately need to be taught better at the youth levels.  When that happens, everyone will see better defense as a whole, man to man or zone.

Embrace Man to Man Defense To Invest In Youth Basketball!


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