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How to Beat a Zone Defense

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I've said and written this many times before - if you coach a "lower level" basketball team and want to win a lot of games then all you have to do is press and drop back into a half court zone defense.

Why? Because younger players and novice coaches (often parents just trying to help out some local kids) just don't know how to counteract those two strategies.

If you happen to fall into that category, and even if you don't, here are 7 things you can do to beat a zone defense:

1. Fast break. I list this one first simply because it's my personal favorite. Most defensive guards will sprint back in transition to their spot in the zone, which is usually near the top of the key, and stop. This means that the basket usually remains completely unprotected until the defensive center gets back to his area. As long as you have at least one player who can outrun your opponent's center you have a great chance to get a transition layup.

2. Combine ball movement with player movement. When facing a zone defense, lots of coaches like to constantly tell their teams to "Move the ball!" which is good advice for the most part but. . . many of those same teams end of moving the ball quickly while their players literally seem nailed to the floor. Send an occasional cutter through, have an inside player constantly move from high post to low post to short corner. You don't have to run your man to man motion offense but you need at least some movement from both the ball and your players.

3. Realize that most defenses are afraid of the 3 point shot. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a team go into a zone defense and then come right back out of it as soon as the offense hits a 3. One time my team missed four straight 3's but our opponent went back to man to man because they were afraid we "might" make one. Whatever offense you run make sure it has a 3 point look built into it and let your best shooter fire off one or two.

4. Emphasize passing not dribbling. If there is one thing wrong with the game of basketball today is that there is way too much unnecessary dribbling! I see players of all ages who can do some amazing things with the ball but while they are showing off their skills they are missing wide open post players, shooters, and cutters. I don't see why most players ever need to take more than one or two dribbles when facing the zone. Any more than that and they are just giving the defense more time to rotate and recover.

5. Be patient. Force the zone to move and shift. That can't happen if you make one pass and then jack up a quick shot. Be patient and get the shot you want instead of the one the defense wants you to take. Ball reversals, skip passes, and playing inside-outside are all ways to get the zone to shift from side to side. The more the zone shifts the sooner it will break down and allow you a wide open shot.

6. Live in the gaps. This principle is so easy that it is often overlooked. All perimeter players need to position themselves exactly half way between two defenders. This does two things - it puts both defenders at an equal distance when it comes to contesting the offensive player's shot and it often creates some confusion as to who is supposed to cover that player in the first place. While living in the gaps is easy, it does require some work. Since the zone is shifting after every pass, in order to stay in the gaps the offensive players need to adjust their positioning after every pass as well.

7. Crash the offensive boards. One of the big advantages of playing man to man defense is that every defensive knows exactly who he is supposed to screen out. Not so with zone defenses and the smart offensive team will take full advantage of this uncertainty by aggressively crashing the boards. Every time a shot is taken an offensive player should be sprinting to each block and to the front of the rim. Since the majority of zone defenders don't screen out you might discover that your best zone offense is to simply throw it up off the board and go get it!

There are dozens of zone offenses that you can use depending on your specific personnel (several can be found BasketballClassroom.com and in our Zone Busters eBook. All of them will become much more effective if you follow the suggestions outlined above.

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