After having played the sport of basketball for nearly 16 years, covered it with the Lehighton TIMES NEWS for six and coached it at Pleasant Valley for four, I have come to notice a trend in today’s high school/middle school style of play.
The man-to-man defense, which used to be the only way to defend the opposition, is unfortunately becoming phased out of game.
It never really hit me until last year as Matt Gould and I coached our respective seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. Since then it has only become more and more apparent.
As I am sure most coaches do, Matt and I like to discuss the events of our games on the trip home. After a handful of conversations we came to realize that there was a central theme of our talks: Another opponent had played some sort of zone defense. Of the 12 different teams we played in 2009-10, two or three went man-to-man. This year has been a little better, but not by much.
So I kept this thought in mind as I covered local high school games this year. To my surprise, I found out that hardly any of them played man-to-man. Now I know that it was just one of their 22 games. Perhaps the coach thought that a zone defense would give his or her team the best chance to win that night. Maybe the other team had too much size or was quicker and more athletic.
Still, I covered over ten games and 20 different teams in 2010-11 and most of them either 1. zone pressed and dropped into a zone, 2. dropped straight back into a zone or 3. ran a pressure 3-2 zone in the half-court in which they tried to trap. These three options seemed to reign supreme at the middle school level as well.
Now I am not trying to question any coach’s game plan or defensive philosophy. I'm no John Wooden. Every coach has his or her own strategy and opinion on what is best for their team. Not to mention that every team is made up of different players with different skill sets. I get that. Quickness and athleticism, two things a coach can not teach, also tend to play a part in whether a team is capable of playing man-to-man. Proper technique is half the battle, but ‘God Given Talent’ is always nice too.
As an eighth grade coach, I feel that it is my duty to be focusing on teaching my players the fundamentals of the game. Things like how to shoot a non-dominate handed lay-up or when to throw a bounce pass. You do not understand how hard it is to get a 13-year-old to throw a bounce pass. Other things include working on a player’s shooting form, teaching them how to jab-step while in triple-threat or showing them how to box out.
However, in my opinion, there is another fundamental that may be even more important. That fundamental is the act of playing man-to-man defense and being able to stop the man in front of you.
I would guess that most coaches run a zone defense now-a-days because they would rather give up a jump shot than a lay-up. That’s a smart move I guess, but with the right offense a team can still get easy buckets against a zone. Then again any defense is beatable with the right play. Regardless, I feel that knowing how to play a proper man defense will help the player later in their career.
All the proper man principles are needed to run a zone defense as well. The player must know the proper defensive stance and how to slide their feet. It doesn’t matter if the player is protecting a five-foot area or trying to defend the ball – they need to know how to keep the man in front of them. Being able to help on defense is important too, but that is a whole other story.
To me, zones are boring. It slows down the game too much. Plus, if a team has a big, tall defender – they can just camp them in the paint since there is no defensive three-seconds. Some teams call it defense and use it to their advantage. I can respect that. However, I would call it lazy defense.
I also don’t prefer zones because it makes it harder to box out and rebound. In a man-to-man defense the player should be around the man they are guarding (unless they are rotating and helping) and can box out quickly once the shot it taken. In a zone, the defender must first locate a player (if they can/try to locate one at all) and may not be ready to go get the ball.
Every zone has a weakness. The 2-3 is vulnerable on the wings and around the free-throw area. A 3-2 is vulnerable along the baselines and the free-throw area. The 1-3-1 can be beat by shots from the wings and just outside the block. With a man-to-man, a player should always be able to at least get a hand in a shooter's face and make a quick box out.
As I stated before, to each his own. Whatever a coach wants to do with their team is their right as coach. But when it comes to the future of the game and the skills of the players, I feel that a man-to-man defense is a must know. At all levels of play.