Does your team shoot well from the outside? Do you have guards that can penetrate into a zone? Is your post player versatile enough to flash high and pass or hit the mid-range shot. Can your team effectively break a simple 2-3 zone?
Time, and time again, I hear coaches say it is just a 2-3 zone. We can break a simple 2-3 zone. They get into a 1-3-1 offensive set, or a number of other 2-3 zone breaking sets, and quickly swing the ball looking to penetrate into the zone, hit a middle flash cut, or take an open shot.
"Clang!" The first shot rims out. "Clang!" the second shot rims out and looked worse than the first. You think about on sideline and call over your point guard. You say, "Okay, let's dribble drive into the zone and look for a dump down, a kick out for 3, or maybe even an open shot." That sounds easy. Then, your team has another bad possession after one of your players forces it into the zone. Then the players come back to you and say, "Coach, we can't get into the zone.... the gaps are closing up too quick. What should we do?"
Has this happened to you before in a game? C'mon, be honest! So you think again. Okay, okay let's try screening the top of the zone. That has to work against this team!.....I can go on and on, but I think you get the point. We all know how to break a zone in a variety of ways, but it doesn't always work out.
So what is it about a zone defense that makes it "better" than man to man? You know I love playing man to man, but I have to admit there are some aspects of a zone defense that you have to like as a coach. For example, you can force teams to take outside shots. If that team is having a bad shooting night, then your chances of winning have gone up significantly. Syracuse did it to Marquette this season in the Elite 8. click here-->Syracuse vs. Marquette (Elite 8)
Below are a list of reasons why a zone is considered by some to be better than traditional man to man defense. Naturally, there are different types of zones that work better for different teams. John Beilein loves to mix in his 1-3-1 zone. Although, he didn't use it much this year at Michigan. Here are some of the advantages to playing zone defense:
1. You can force teams to play on the perimeter and hit 3's. A lot of teams, especially in high school, do not shoot very well from the outside. Syracuse did this to Marquette in the NCAA tournament and they are a Division 1 Men's program. I think you can force teams to the perimeter in man to man defense too (I have), but it seems like it may be a more suitable strategy for a zone.
2. It applies pressure to your opponent. Similar to man to man defenses you can pressure your opponent, but in a different way. The zone forces teams to be patient, work the ball around, and take good shots. Unfortunately, many teams get impatient against the zone and start to take bad shots. You can also pressure the ball with a zone defense by trapping the corners, sidelines, etc....Especially with 1-3-1 zone, but even with a 2-3 zone you can trap. This can also apply pressure to teams. However, I think the best way to apply pressure to teams using a zone is by rotating well, working together as a cohesive unit, and rebounding as a team to limit them to one shot. This can be very frustrating!
3. Tempo. Zone defenses are great way to set the tempo of a game. You can speed teams up accidentally by frustrating them with a 2-3 zone. I say accidentally because you aren't necessarily pressuring the ball, but they are still taking quick shots.
You can also force running teams to slow down and be patient. When I played in high school we used a 2-3 zone to beat Cambridge Ringe & Latin High School. They were #1 in the state at the time and extremely big and athletic. We were able to effectively slow them down the entire game using a zone. Other teams tried this strategy and lost to them. We were a pretty good team, but the zone definitely made the difference. This is certainly an advantage to playing a zone defense. Slowing down the tempo.
4. Teams have to practice to beat it. I understand that teams have to practice against man to man too, but that is something you see more often. Teams that play against Syracuse have to gameplan specifically for that type of zone defense. Sometimes you can make your opponent worry so much about playing against your zone defense that it can be a psychological advantage in a game. However, this is also the case with VCU's vaunted run and jump full court press. I guess it works with both types of defense. The one thing I will say about game planning for a zone is that it can cause teams to adjust strategy, personnel, and even may take away from time spent on other aspects of the game.
5. You have great athletes. Above you see a picture of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Well, they recruit long, athletic players purposely for the zone defense. In high school we are unable to recruit for our system, but if you have a long, athletic team you may want to play zone. I would also argue that a long, athletic team is a great man to man team. You can press, trap, and cause a lot of turnovers. Having great athletes does give you some options.
6. You have smart players that understand the game, but aren't as athletic. Play zone. Teach them to rotate properly, rebound as a team, and move as one. My team was very athletic in high school, but not as athletic as the Cambridge team we beat. We used the 2-3 zone to make up for that gap and it worked out well. Again, this isn't always true. We played man against an athletic Charlestown team the next year and it worked out great. It really depends on the preference of the coach.
7. Teams will take some questionable shots. I talked about this a little bit in #1, but the zone can definitely force teams to take bad shots. This is an advantage and something I have seen first hand. Teams get frustrated and start taking long 3-point shots. Or, they force the ball into the middle of the zone and try to get off an open shot. Zone defenses can certainly be frustrating, but I guess a good man to man defense can be as well.
SO WHAT IS IT GOING TO BE? MAN TO MAN OR ZONE?
In the final analysis, and I always go back to this, you have to choose the system that works the best for you and your team. If you want them to play a 2-3 zone, then spend time on it every day at practice and teach them every aspect of the zone. If you want your team to play man to man, then do the same.
So what is it going to be? Man to Man or Zone defense? It is up to you coach!
Remember, Hard work beats talent, if talent fails to work hard!
Here are a few additional articles on the Syracuse 2-3 zone for your reading pleasure:
New York Times article on 2-3 zone
ESPN article on the 2-3 zone
USA Today article on the 2-3 zone
Syracuse vs. Marquette (Elite 8)