Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 6: Attacking a Zone

Some final notes

Writing about a somewhat niche figure in sports is a challenge. In professional basketball, it’s more common to see a successful half-court shot than it is a successful zone. Even in college, the popularity of the zone defense is dwindling. Division I teams run zones 7.2% less often than they did five years ago, per Synergy. The major dropoff is from teams that ran it some of the time. More teams are choosing to go full man-to-man as opposed to running some man, some zone. I don’t know how much you’ll see this change as the three-point line is extended in D-I this year, but my guess is that you see even less zone defense, simply because it’s a greater coverage area than ever before.

That said, every team will face a zone defense at some point this season. Instead of being unprepared for it, I like what Charleston’s Dwaine Osborne told me his staff does. “What we try to do to counteract [playing several man defenses in a row] is spend a select amount of time each week in practice on zone offense. We spend time on that even if we think you’re not gonna play it. We have concepts we want to keep fresh in players’ minds. That way, we’re ready to go no matter what for a game. It’s been a big help for us in attacking zones effectively year in, year out.”

If your players have had trouble effectively attacking zones, it’s worth listening to Osborne’s advice. From my biased perspective, it was clear that Tennessee spent quite the amount of time on properly breaking down zones, despite rarely running one on defense themselves. That amount of practice time paid off, as it was a key part of the most dominant offense in school history. For Wofford, a relatively new D-1 program, they worked an inside-out, floor-spreading offense both against man and zone defenses, stretching the zone thin and finding holes that weren’t obvious in the first place.

As with anything in life, beating something that requires you to slow down and thinking about it takes a lot of practice time to get right. Teams have certain beats and actions that need to be run at certain times, and you’re not going to remember them very well if you never practice them. Even if your program doesn’t run a zone defense, and even if your conference doesn’t use a lot of zone, it’s very unlikely you’ll run through an entire season without playing at least one game against a zone-heavy team. When that day comes, you, your staff, and your players will be very thankful for all the practice time you spent working on your zone offense. It could be the difference in a coin-flip game, after all.

Thanks for reading the sixth installment of Building a Better Basketball Offense. At the end of each post, there will be a link to extra notes or statistics I didn’t use, plus links to all GIFs  used in the making of the post. Also, there’s transcripts of the interviews I did with each coach, with full audio files available upon request. Here’s this post’s edition.

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