Defensive Principles

We'll cover the different defensive alignments that we might use during the season here. Defenses are either Man-to-Man or Zone. This page covers some of the techniques, concepts, and formations we'll use when we play defense. (Credit where credit is due: Some of the information on this page is taken, in part or whole, from CYO Basketball Coaches Clinic 2005: Presented by University of Sports handbook, with permission.)


Defensive play means that your team is trying to prevent the other team from scoring. You need to start playing defense as soon as the other team has possession of the basketball. In order to play defense well, players need to know how the defense is supposed to work. There are two different types of defense: Man-to-Man or Zone. The type of defense your team is using will who...and are supposed to defend. The type of defense can be played in essentially two main styles: aggressive or passive defense. In this section, we'll overview what all of these mean.


A Man-to-Man defense means that you are assigned to guard a specific player when the other team has the ball. Where ever that player goes, you stay with him, positioning yourself between him and the basket. The coaches will usually assign you a player to guard, based on physical size and skills and positions. If another player is penetrating our defense, you can help out your teammate, but you want to be able to get to your assigned man quickly once he has the ball. Once the ball is shot, everyone collapses on the basket for the rebound. If the offense gets the rebound, you need to find that player you've been assigned to.

Man-to-Man's strengths are that it makes it possible to protect both the inside and outside, because each offensive player is accounted for. It is a more aggressive, attacking style of defense and can therefore be more disruptive. Along with this, it tends to maintain a faster game tempo, causing turnovers, quick transitions, and fast breaks. There are some concerns, though. In order to run Man-to-Man effectively, all five players on the court need to be fundamentally sound in their defensive skills. The demands on the individual players are greater, because there is little support from teammates. Breakdowns and mismatches in Man-to-Man will lead to quick and easy scoring by the offense.


A zone defense is different from man, because you are assigned to an area. You need to be more concerned about where the ball is than where a specific man is. Zone defenses are usually named so that you now how to line up, from top to bottom of the key. For example, if the defense is called "2-3," it means that there are two players high (near the top of the key, by the free throw line) and three players are low (near the bottom of the key, by the basket). Other zones named like this include"1-3-1" (one high, three in the middle, and one low),or "2-1-2" (two high, one in the middle, and two low). One zone defense we might use that has a little different kind of name is called "Box and One." In this zone, 4 defenders are positioned near the corners of the key, and the fifth player harassess whoever has the's kind of like a combination of a zone and man-to-man defense.

When you're in a zone, you need to be aware of the ball and other players in your area who are moving and trying to get the ball. Your back should be to the basket and you should use a "pistols ready" position.

Usually in a zone, we will have one or two defenders positioned high. These guards (#1 and #2) need to be quick, aggressive and smart. We want them to stay near their assigned areas, but attack the guard bringing the ball down court to force him to pick up his dribble and make a risky pass or shot. The Posts (#3 and #4) are usually low. They should be physical players, responsible for screening and rebounding, but since they have to defend the lower portion of the court, from the sidelines through the key, they also have to move well. The ideal center (#5) is physical, battling tall opponents for rebounds and position. Centers are often responsible for less area than his teammates, but #5's area often covers the area the offense wants the most: the key.

The zone defense also has its own strengths and weaknesses. A zone is generally better for team rebounding, because the defenders can more readily collapse on the ball. Players who have less experience, development, or desire can be protected or assisted by their teammates in a zone defense. And the zone defense enables a more organized transition from defense to offense. The zone has some limitations, though. Most importantly, for player development, the fundamental defensive skills that Man-to-Man teaches are not reinforced, which could be a hinderance when advancing to the next level of basketball (i.e., Jr. High or High School). Furthermore, zone defenses can lead to lazy habits and passive play. And a good outside shooter can be extremely effective against the zone.

Aggressive Style

An aggressive defense tends to focus on the ball, whether to influence it toward, or away, from certain areas or to take the ball from their opponents' strength before they can shoot. It is also active, because even as teammates are controlling the action by attacking the ball handler, and the most likely pass receivers, the rest of the defense is anticipating whatever tactics the offense might try.

Passive Style

Where the aggressive defense is ball-oriented, the passive defense is basket-oriented. Passive defenses are designed to protect the basket area from attack by squeezing the defenders' areas of responsibility toward the key. The passive defense is better able to react to the offense's changing efforts to penetrate and score. They are like the "Guardians of the Basket," ready for the enemy to attack.

Pressure Defense

Basketball teams use a pressure defense to try to create turnovers or change the tempo of the game. There are many ways to "press," but the idea is the same: put pressure on the ball handler and try to cause your opponent to not be able to execute their offense. The key is several designated spots on the court where the defenders will want to control or force the offense to the sideline, where it can be trapped. Full court pressure can be done in either a Man-to-Man or zone defense. Either way, players need to be active and aggressive.

Defensive Techniques

This section covers some of the basic techniques defenders will want to remember.

Basic Stance

In your defensive stance, your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. One foot should be staggered slightly in front of the other. Keep your knees bent and your thighs at almost 45-degrees to the floor, with your back mostly straight. Keep your hands in front of your body, palms up. I like to see the inside hand slightly above the waist, and the outside hand raised high. We're trying to obstruct both passing lanes and the ball-handlers vision. In positioning yourself, remember the four 'B's: "Belly to Belly, Butt to Basket."


As a defender, you are either on the ball (defending against the ball handler), one pass away (defending someone/an area in immediate range of the ball), or two passes away (defending someone/an area on the back side, further from the ball). Depending on where you are from the ball, you will modify your defensive posture.

On the Ball

If you find yourself "on the ball," challenge the ball handler. Stay between the him and the basket. You need to keep a low, balanced stance and try to squeeze the ball handler against the sideline. Trace the ball with your hands when it is not moving.

One Pass Away - Denial

If you are defending one pass away, you want to deny the ball to player(s) in your zone or the man you're assigned to defend. Keep your inside foot in the passing lane (the direct line from the ball handler to the offensive player). Your inside hand is outstretched, with your thumb down (palm out, toward the ball). You can gently place your outside hand against his hip so that you "feel" where he is, but don't push! You need to see not only the player you are guarding, but the ball as well. Be ready to help your teammate on the ball, in case the ball-handler tries to drive to the basket.

More than One Pass Away - Help or Back Side

If you are defending two or more passes away from the ball, don't fall asleep! You are anticipating where the ball will move. It's important to communicate with teammates, who aren't looking at you. Let them know that you have their backside (yell "got help!"). You should use a "pistols" position, with your inside hand pointing to the ball and your outside hand to the player(s) in your zone or the man you're assigned to defend. Try to create a triangle with the basket behind you, while keeping one foot in the key and maintaining a position between the ball and the offensive player. When you are the back side help, always be ready to step up and deny penetration. If the ball is passed closer to your man/area (one pass away), move to a denial position.


Push off the forward foot. Step back "heel-to-toe" with the rear foot, to maintain good balance. Slide the front foot backward. "Jump to the ball" with each pass. Remember to keep those feet shoulder width apart!


It's important in any defense to remember where you are relative to the ball. Is the ball in your zone, or one pass away, or more than one pass away? If the ball is in your zone, than you are "on the ball." If the ball is in the zone next to yours, you are playing "one pass away," working on denying the completion of the pass. If you are more than one pass away, you are thinking "help" reacting to the flow of the offense and filling the cracks that may appear in the zones in front of you. Your defensive posture and thinking should reflect that (see above). Are you on the ball? Or are you thinking "denial"? Or are you thinking "help?" Consider your position in the zone, relative to the ball, because then you will be in better position to anticipate, react, and defend. Some of the zone defenses we might use this season are the 2-3, the 2-1-2, and the Box-and-1.


The 2-3 defense is pretty simple but very effective. As the name says, there are two defenders (#1 and #2) high, and three low (#3, #4, and #5). Coaches might decide that you have the best success on the left or right side of the court or the other, but generally, the guards--#1 and #2--share equal responsibilities on either, as do the forwards, #3 and #4. The center (#5) is in the low middle...he doesn't have a left or right it usually doesn't matter whether you are on the left or right side of the defense. The job is the same.


This image shows how to line up in the 2-3 defense and gives some idea of how to move and cover.


The 2-1-2 is a lot like the 2-3, but we push the defense a little further up court. Like the 2-3, the posts (3 and 4) play in the lower portion of the key. But the center (5) moves a bit higher, allowing the two guards to (1-2) also play further up court, attacking the ball further from the net. The 2-1-2 is a little more of an aggressive defense that the 2-3, because the defense is attacking the ball earlier. The guards (1 and 2) may pressure the offense as soon as it crosses halfcourt. The downside is that this can leave big gaps in the defense, as it spreads out to attack the offense and as players move and tumble out of position in the course of play. It takes more aggressive, but disciplined, play than the 2-3.

When you are "one pass away," you should be in a portion of your zone that is close to the ball, but give yourself room to react and deny the pass to opponents in your zone. In 2006-07, this has been our main defense.

This image shows how to line up in the 2-1-2 defense and shows the zones that each player is responsible for covering.

Box And 1

The Box and 1 is a combination of zone and man-to-man defense. There are four players playing a passive zone. That means that they are basket-oriented, with their zone responsibilities squeezing toward the key as the ball approaches the basket. (Remember the idea of the "Guardians of the Basket?") Usually, these four players are two Guard-types, setting up on each elbow of the key, and two Post-types, setting up on the two boxes. These four defenders form a box around the key...that's the "Box" in the "Box and 1."

The "1" in the name refers to the fifth defender, who is playing the one guy playing differently from his 'boxy' teammates. This defender assumes an aggressive man-to-man style of defense. Whereever the ball goes, he follows, attacking and harassing the ball handler. Better be in good shape to play this spot, because you'll need to run a lot! The man-to-man defender sets up between the top of the key and halfcourt, ready to harass the ball-handler as soon as he crosses the half court line.

This defense can be easily defeated if the man-to-man defender is tired or doesn't use sound one-on-one defensive skills. The box zone defenders have a larger area to cover than normally, so the gaps and seams in the zone are bigger. However, it's a great defense to take away a one-dimensional team, and it isn't too bad a means of introducing, practicing, and reinforcing man-to-man skills with a little bit of a 'safety net.' (And on rosters with a lot of kids, it provides a way to use the large numbers of players to an advantage.)

This image shows how to line up in the 2-3 defense and gives some idea of how to move and cover.

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