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Man-to-Man defense: The lost art

Published February 18. 2011 05:00PM

After having played the sport of basketball for nearly 16 years, covered it with the TIMES NEWS for six and coached it at Pleasant Valley for four, I have come to realize something about today's high school/middle school style of play.

The man-to-man defense, which used to be the only way to play defense, is unfortunately becoming phased out of game.

I never really noticed it 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 to us.

As I am sure most coaches do, Matt and I like to discuss the events of our games on the bus ride home. After a while we realized that there seemed to be a central theme of our conversations. Another one of our opponents had played a zone defense. So I looked it up. Of the 12 teams we played last year, two or three went man-to-man. This year has been a little better, but not by much.

I kept this thought in mind as I covered local high school games this year. To my surprise, I noticed that hardly any of them played man-to-man. Now I know that I saw just one of 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.

But I covered 17 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.

3. Ran a pressure 3-2 zone in the half-court and tried to trap.

These three options seem 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. Every coach has their own strategy and opinion on what is best for their particular 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, play a part in whether a team is capable of going man-to-man. Proper technique is half the battle as well, but 'God Given Talent' goes a long way too.

As an eighth grade coach, I feel that I am supposed to be focusing on teaching my players the fundamentals of the game. Things like how to shoot a non-dominate handed lay-up and when to throw a bounce pass. You do not know 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 and showing them how to box out.

However, in my opinion, there is a fundamental 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 assume that most coaches run a zone defense now-a-days because they would rather give up a jump shot than a lay-up. Or they figure kids simply can't shoot that well at the eighth grade level.

That's a smart move I guess, but with the right offense a team can still get lay-ups against a zone. Then again I guess any defense is beat-able 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 man principles are still needed to run a zone defense. 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 themselves balanced and how to stay in front of the man.

To me, zones are boring. It slows down the game too much. Plus, if a team has a big, tall defender - he can just camp in the paint since there is no defensive three-seconds. Some teams call it defense and use it to their rightful advantage. I call it lazy. Teach him how to play top/low-side defense. Show him how to front the post. Tell him to be ready for the weak-side lob.

I also don't like to run zones (unless the situation calls for it) because it makes it harder to box out and rebound. In a man-to-man defense the player is usually near the man they are guarding (unless they are rotating and helping) and can box out quickly once a 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 or down near 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 the coach. But when it comes to the future of the game and the skills of the players, a feel that a man-to-man defense is a 'must know' at all levels of play.

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