IN THE ZONE

It’s a phrase most often associated with players who are playing on a level above everyone else.
Yet, recently, in the college game, you are hearing it more and more as it relates to team defense.
Teams today are playing a lot more zone defense, a defense that was suppose to be obsolete with the
advent of the 3 point line.

Does this mean that we are in the midst of a throwback to an era of days-gone-by when teams played
40 minutes of zone, players played with their hands straight up and feet in the paint and you could
hear coaches yelling things like “belly to the ball” and “don’t leave the paint” to direct their
team? Not exactly. The 3-point line did change things. Teams have to be able to defend the perimeter.
This has changed what traditionalists would call zone defense.

What has not changed are the three reasons why teams play zone defense.

1. Cannot defend the other team. There are many reasons why a team may not be able to defend their
opponents. Foul-trouble, depth, lack of quickness and inability to match-up with certain players on
the opposing team are all valid reasons for playing zone and all fall under the category of not
being able to defend the other team.

2. Other team can’t shoot. Now all teams can shoot but for brevity’s sake we’re talking about the
ability to shoot from the perimeter. If a team has a difficult time shooting from the perimeter,
it’s wise to pack-it-in the paint and force them to chuck it from the cheap seats.

3. To trick ’em (my personal favorite). That’s right. To trick ’em. Dean Smith’s teams used this
philosophy quite often. They were constantly changing defenses to try and confuse the other team
and offset their offensive rhythm.

The reasons are the same but the zone has really changed. Today’s zone is not your father’s
belly-to-the-ball defense where standing tall was a premium. Today’s zone is truly a match-up zone,
where players have to get down, stay in a stance and pressure the basketball. The match-up zone
allows a team to play man principles on the ball and places off-the-ball-defenders in better help
positions. Off-the-ball-defenders have to be aware of both the basketball and other players near
them, as they may be responsible for covering the next pass. Defenders never guard an area.
Defenders in an area where there are no offensive players are pretty much defending air. Although
that may be all that some players can defend, most coaches would prefer their players to at least
attempt to defend somebody. The principle of not defending an area without an offensive player in
it is the biggest difference (there are many) between the match-up and traditional zones.

Many coaches today are recognizing the advantages of the match-up. Even coaches like Syracuse’s Jim
Boeheim who have played the traditional 2-3 zone for years have started “matching” out of their zone.
You almost have to. Why? Even though reason number 2 still holds true in today’s game, almost every
team has at least one shooter that has to be guarded on the perimeter. With the 3-point line, one
player can do a lot of damage and the line is not deep enough to where marginal shooters can’t get
hot and beat you from that range.

The match-up zone is a better answer than the traditional zone for all three reasons for playing
zone defense in the first place. If you are having trouble defending the other team, the match-up
allows you to stop dribble penetration (the toughest thing in basketball to stop defensively) and
still put pressure on the basketball. It is an equalizer against teams with superior quickness. If
the other team can’t shoot, the match-up lets you pack-it-in and force non-shooters to shoot and
yet still allows you to find capable shooters and defend them.

And if you want to trick ’em, the match-up is definitely the answer. Most players have a difficult
time deciphering between the difference of match-up and man-to-man. Even if they do, no one has
really developed a full-proof offense for attacking the match-up. Half the coaches in America are
still running their man offenses against it and the other half don’t know what to run. This is
especially true if you are switching back-and-forth between man-to-man and match-up. Want to confuse
a point guard? Switch back-and-forth after made and missed baskets. Nothing slows a team down more
than making their point guard stop 35 feet away from the basket and try to decide what defense the
other team is playing. Then they have to decide what offense to run.

Teams are using the match-up more and more. It’s the true hybrid between traditional zones and
man-to-man defenses. If you’re a coach, you better have it in your arsenal and you better think
of a way to attack it. If you’re a fan, watch your favorite team. They’re probably playing it.