Defense is my favorite part of the game and man-to-man is my favorite defense. It’s my favorite to play, my favorite to teach during practice, and my favorite to use when I’m coaching a game. I also believe that every player should be taught man-to-man and play a lot of man-to-man, even though it’s not always the perfect solution in a game.

Players and teams should be taught man-to-man because it can be effective against opponents and because when players learn man-to-man, they learn the basic fundamentals of defense. I used the  “10 to Win” Westside Rules of Defense when I was coaching at West Seattle. These rules set a precedent for what was expected; for players to stay low and close out aggressive but under control, to keep their hands up and out and to read their opponents, to jump to the ball when a pass was made, to keep their man out of the middle, to read passing lanes and bump cutters, to block out, to play help defense, to talk to one another and to be ruthless when an opponent picked up their dribble, and to never get beat back.  

These defensive rules are essential when playing man-to-man defense, and they elevate zone play. There is nothing worse than a 2-3 zone where five players stand in the key, arms down by their sides. This happens a lot at lower levels, when kids are not taught the man-to-man fundamentals and explained how they translate into zones. In a good zone, players bend their knees, see the ball and any players in their area, close out, bump cutters, block out, talk, you get the point, they don’t just stand in their areas.

When I was the head coach at West Seattle High School, I asked my junior varsity coaches to use man-to-man for at least half of each JV game. It’s tough to do this if a team is young and maybe not as skilled, opposing players will go around the defense, players will struggle helping their teammates, and teams who honestly might have a chance to win if they played zone, may lose. Our JV lost some games because of this I’m sure, but I believe that by using man-to-man defense, at least a portion of the time, the girls learned the basic principles of defense and improved their individual game, the JV team, and in the end, the overall program.

Although I openly declare that I love man-to-man and that it’s my favorite D, it’s not always the right defense to get the job done. So it’s a coach’s job to scout an opponent, if possible, so they know what to expect, and then read the opponents offense during the game and adjust. Does a team score every time by driving to the hoop, but can’t hit 3-pointers? They might be the perfect candidate for a tight 2-3 zone. Maybe your opponent doesn’t have great ball handlers but you don’t have enough players to run a lot of full court press, you could try a half-court trapping zone. Put pressure on their ball handlers while conserving some energy. Maybe you want to slow the game but your opponent’s guards could easily get by an aggressive full-court press, you could extend your defense a little into a soft press to take some time off the clock. If your opponent starts beating your zone defense, change it up; try a burst of man-to-man pressure, and visa-versa. Or maybe your opponents leading scorer gets all of her points from the block. Try doubling her every time she touches the ball (this could be done in both man or zone).

I’m a proponent of change, but controlled change. Make changes with your defense to upset your opponent, but only use what your team is familiar with. I had an assistant coach who always wanted to add new offenses and defenses on the fly. I don’t agree with this philosophy. As a head coach, I was open to new things, if we had time to practice them. I wanted our players to feel confident in what they were doing. When I talk about using change, I mean use what you have in your arsenal to create change to upset your opponent. Throw your full court press at them, slow things down with a soft zone, or even mix it up on possessions. I often had my teams change defense on a made basket. I had one team who performed this flawlessly. If we were playing 1-2-2 zone, I might say “go back to man-to-man on makes”. This takes kids who know what they are doing, who have solid man-to-man skills, as well as a good understanding of all zones and presses that their team runs.

It’s always better to stick with the basics, but once your players understand man-to-man concepts it will be easier for them to pick up different zones and presses. When coaching a new team I start by teaching them man-to-man and a basic 2-3. Sometimes you don’t need all the fancy stuff. My West Seattle High School team, who were undefeated Metro League Champions and placed 6th in State, played a lot of man and 2-3 zone and they were amazing at it. They were like one on the court. But we also added a good 1-2-2 (I personally prefer it over a 1-3-1) that was essential from time to time. And when we pressed it was usually a full court 2-2-1 (sometimes back to man, sometimes back to zone) or a half court 1-3-1 (back to 1-2-2). And by playoffs we added a Box and 1 and a Triangle and 2.

I waited on the Box and Triangle for a couple of reasons. One, because our basic man and zone defensive fundamentals weren’t dialed in until near the end of the season, and two, we didn’t usually need them. But come playoff we almost always had a team that had one or two players that we needed to shut down. There is nothing better than frustrating those players with aggressive in your face defense, and these man/zone combination defenses allow that. In a Box and 1, one player is in tight man-to-man and the other players run a box-shaped zone (With Triangle and 2, it’s two in man-to-man and the rest in a triangle zone). These defenses take a lot of talking and teamwork and most important, a good understanding of the fundamentals.

I’m writing this blog is to let you know that there are a lot of defensive options out there for your teams, but what is most important as a coach, is to focus on man-to-man fundamentals. They will improve your man-to-man defense and improve the defensive skills of your players, which will transfer to your zones and in the end, strengthen your team.