by Terry D. Battenberg - Appeared in Winning Hoops Magazine

            As a veteran coach, I have obviously seen a fair share of zone defenses used against my
teams through the years.  Sometimes it was because opponents thought we did not have particularly
good outside shooters. At other times it was out of desperation because our opponents could not
stop our man-to-man offense.  Of course, there was always the occasional opponent who lived
and died with the zone and usually played it quite well.

            While many coaches are satisfied with letting their teams fire away from “three-point-land”,
hoping to get hot and shoot their way out of the zone defense, I have found that attack to be too
inconsistent for my tastes.  Since I favor an inside-out approach to man-to-man offense, it stands
to reason that I would do the same against zones.  With five players often stationed in the key, a
zone defense presents a real challenge to any team wanting to score inside.  That’s why I call for
Zone Specials as soon as I see a zone defense, to get my team some immediate inside shot attempts.

            With Zone Specials, I expect my team to get a shot close to the basket or an open look for our
best player.  If we can get an easy score inside or an open shot for our best shooter, then we are in
control of the situation.  To reinforce this thought process, I tell my players there are basically three
reasons why opponents play zone defense:

  1. They don’t know how to play man-to-man very well.
  2. They are in foul trouble or a key player is in foul trouble.
  3. They are trying to change the tempo and take us out of our inside-out attack.

            Whatever reason it is, I want my team to believe a zone is a weakness we will take
advantage of immediately.  And this will be done with special zone plays that will get us some
quick and easy baskets.  My goal is to have five specials available every year, and we script
them in the order we want to run them.

            Since I like to score inside first, my favorite initial call is usually the “Stack Play.”  Stack
plays have been around for years and come in many forms.  The one I have illustrated has
worked well for me and usually fits my personnel, corresponds to my normal man-to-man half
court set, and reflects my man-to-man offensive philosophy.  It can be flip-flopped to the
opposite side of the key as a disguise of the original stack play or to favor a left-handed inside player.

            The positioning I favor is for “1” to be the ball handler and safety, “2” is the best outside
shooter, “3” is a good playmaker and passer, “4” is the more physical big man and usually has
the best jump hook or best mid-range jumper, and “5” is the tallest big man or the one who can
jump the highest.   As he calls or sets the play, “1” dribbles to the right-side,
lane-line-extended, about a step above the three-point line.  Big men “4” and “5” form a tandem
(stack) on the left side of the free throw lane, each with a foot on the block, standing shoulder to
shoulder.  As “1” is dribbling to his spot, “2” moves to the baseline, right-side, low post position. 
The “3” man makes an “L-cut” to the left elbow and then up the left-side, lane-line-extended. 
He times his cut so he will get open for a reverse pass from “1” and he should be open, because
he is coming from behind his zone area’s defender.  

            As the ball is passed from “1” to “3”, “2” cuts hard under the basket and the stack,
heading to the corner for a possible pass and shot attempt.  If X4 does not get around the
stack and cover-out on “2”, then we have our best shooter getting an open shot from the
corner.   On a shot attempt by “2”, “1” rotates back as a safety, “4”
crosses over to the weak-side (right, low post area), ”3” crashes the middle, and “5” holds
his ground as all three big men are now positioned to rebound a potential missed shot.  “2”
is the second safety and helps “1” by getting back after his shot attempt.  

            We do not fear our best shooter putting up an open shot in this situation because he is
our “best” and is a real threat for three points.  Plus, we have three big players crashing the
boards against the zone, looking for a potential offensive rebound and put-back.  Since zones
generally area-rebound and don’t have specific assigned man to box out, I convince my
“big three” that they have a more than even chance of getting any rebound.  If your best
shooter shoots an open shot and your three best big men are rushing to the boards, this
ends up being a pretty good zone play.

            But the “three” is not what we are really after with this set.  Remember the “Inside-Out
Philosophy” mentioned earlier?  The Stack is designed to get an easy inside shot, and that will
happen as soon as X4 goes out to cover our “2” in the corner.  With X4 outside the Stack, our
“4” and “5” are now in an overload position against X5 of the opponents.  “3” still has the ball
and sees X4 outside the stack, potentially covering “2”.  “3” looks at “2” and fakes a pass to
him, thus signaling “4” to make his move on X5.   “4” steps into the key with
his hands up to draw X5 to him.  If X5 does not bite on this move, then “3” can pass to “4” for
the short jump hook, power shot, or jumper.  We are looking for X5 to cover our “4”, thus
freeing up our “5”.  A simple lob pass from “3” to the open “5” will result in an inside power
shot or dunk.  (Remember, “5” is the best jumper of the big men.)  The “3” must be a good
passer and play-maker because he has to read the situation and make the appropriate pass
to “2”, “4”, or “5”, in that order.  By reading the movement of X4 and X5, “3” should be able
to get some easy assists from his position.

            Here are some other options that will be available as the game continues.

  1. Instead of shooting, “2” can drop it low to “5” for a baseline attack if X4 rushes out
    to defend the corner shot.  “4” and “5” will still be in a stack and have X5 outnumbered
    in that area. 
  1. When “3” hits “4” popping to the middle, “4” may be able to quickly touch-pass to
    “5” who could be open if X5 rushes to the ball a little late. 
  1. “4” could also hit “1” with a cross-court pass if he senses the middle is clogged
    up and the weak-side is open.  “1” could then shoot or direct his team into the flow
    of a standard zone attack. 

            Whether you use “The Stack” or other zone specials, come up with some easy ways
to score against a zone and your team will know who has the upper hand.  Mix your specials
and keep the opponents guessing.   Even if the zone starts matching up on your overloads,
you’ll have the opponents basically playing man-to-man, which is something they obviously
don’t want to do.  Attacking the inside against an opponent that is caught between a zone
and a man-to-man defense, is an advantage I always like to have.

            When confronting a zone defense, make sure your team knows it is prepared. Never
let an opponent’s zone defense be the excuse for your team losing a game.  Plan ahead,
prepare your team, and they will play with confidence.  Don’t let the zone “get you down.”


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