After watching, playing, and coaching high school basketball in the state of Maine for 26+ years, I have finally figured out why the level of play has consistently decreased year after year. It struck me as I was in Boothbay, coaching the Oak Hill 7th and 8th grade travel team this spring, when in our final game, I had a player say to me as he was running back on defense, “coach, they’re playing a box and 1 on me.” I couldn’t believe it. The idea that a coach would play a box and 1 – a zone defense in which one player faceguards a designated player from the other team, while the rest of the defense forms a “box” zone around the paint to protect the basket - at this level, seemed ludicrous to me. I responded to my player, “no…it was probably just a 1-2-2…let me see it one more time.” Also, the possibility that a 7th/8th grade travel team was playing a 1-2-2 was also a bit obscene. So, on our next offensive possession, I checked, and lo and behold, my player was right – one of the defenders was faceguarding him, and the other defenders were in a box. I was shocked. Then I thought, “hey, I have a kid in 8th grade that recognizes box and 1…that’s a great basketball IQ for a kid his age,” then I went back to being shocked. I called a timeout to draw up an offense that would counter a defense used in only the rarest occasion at the high school and college level, when teams are in must-win, do-or-die, and other cliché sports situations in which a victory is the only acceptable outcome. Like me, our kids were frustrated.
One of my biggest coaching philosophies has been to stay away from zones, because I have seen many instances in which players tend to get lazy in a zone, because of their responsibilities of covering an area of the floor as opposed to moving with an offensive man. Coaches use zone defenses to change the pace of the game, and to gain an advantage against bigger teams who do not shoot the ball very well. If the players are lazy, the zone will be lazy, and ineffective. If the players are working hard, the zone will be active, and will be quite effective. This past high school season, the Oak Hill Raiders played a zone defense probably between 25-50% of the time, and it worked well for us – our players worked hard, filled their roles and responsibilities, and executed at a high level. This kept us in many games, and gave us a chance to win some games we weren’t “supposed” to win. The reason our players were able to execute our zone defense was because of their background in playing intense, physical man to man defense over the previous few years for Coach Nick at the varsity level, and for me at the JV level. Man to man defense is the bread and butter of defensive basketball. Players are taught a variety of techniques for any situation they may encounter in a game, and then react accordingly in game situations. If they are not taught simple man to man defensive terminology or skills at an early age (pre-varsity basketball), then they will not be able to perform optimally in a zone defense. Our players this past season had the concepts of man to man defense down pat, which is why our zone was so effective.
This is where the skills start to break down. Coaches at the middle school levels and lower are too hung up on winning. The only wins that matter in this state are high school varsity and college wins – a little known fact to most. Travel team coaches realize that zones are “easier” to teach than proper man to man defense, and also, because of the low offensive abilities of most players at those levels, zones will shut down the most highly skilled players because the zone will take away driving lanes to the basket and force players to shoot from farther away from the basket than they are comfortable. Coaches are not teaching the basic fundamentals of the game, for the sake of winning a few meaningless travel team games. As a result, players do not know how to defend properly. A side effect of the zone defense is a lack of shooting fundamentals. Kids who play against zones are forced to throw up shots well out of their range, which destroys all shooting form and mechanics, and their travel team coaches don’t seem to care, as long as one out of every five 3 point heaves by a 4’10” 7th grader goes in. By the time they get to high school, their mechanics are so bad, that they are almost impossible to fix. They are either not ready to play at the high school level because of their lack of technique, or they have lazy habits because they have never had to work hard on defense, and got by basically on luck and chance. No one has gotten better, and no one has learned anything. But hey, at least they have a nice shiny trophy to put on their mantle and raise their self esteem, and the coaches can say that they beat a high school varsity coach.
Back at Boothbay, our kids battled. We stayed in our basic half court man to man defense. Out of all the teams I saw while coaching our travel team this spring, we were the only team to play strictly man to man, buzzer to buzzer. In fact, in the span of two weeks (seven games), we only played against a man to man defense for a grand total of two quarters. Individual offensive skill development was basically nonexistent in these games, as we tried to figure out in timeouts and between quarters what to do against a 2-3, 2-3 matchup, 3-2, 1-2-2, 1-2-2 trap, 1-3-1, and of course, the infamous box and 1. Our travel team record this spring was 1-10, with the one win coming against a team of 7th graders. But, we got better every game. As shot after shot continued to miss on the offensive end for us, we never let it hinder our defensive effort. We dug in, and got stops. We had players in the passing lanes, on the basket line, and protecting the rim. We had weak side rotations to take away penetration. We showed pick and rolls. We took charges(!). All five guys on the floor boxed out when the shot went up. In the end, we lost by 12 against the box and 1 to end our season at Boothbay (thanks in part to me getting a technical for filling out the book wrong – my bad – tough weekend at the 2010 BRYMCA for me). As I walked out of the gym, it was evident that our kids had all learned something about the game this spring. I know I sure learned some things too.