Once deplored by better coaches as the easy way out of teaching sound defense in basketball, the zone is now all the rage on every level of the sport. One good reason is that today's supershooters and intricate offenses have been beating man-to-man defenses regularly. Coach Joe Mullaney of Providence, who assisted in preparing this article, also points out that the new zone patterns are far more sophisticated and effective than those of a few years ago. Mullaney, whose teams are usually among the nation's defensive leaders, has been using a combination defense (page 78) at Providence since 1955, and won the National Invitation Tournament with it in 1961 and 1963. His experience proves that only a team of superior ball handlers can consistently penetrate a well-played zone. Four of the most popular of these defenses are analyzed on the following pages.
The 1-2-2 Zone
This zone is used most often to offset a height disadvantage and against a team that has a strong pivotman but weak outside shooting. It is specifically designed to jam the foul lane, cutting off penetration to the basket and creating congestion in the most dangerous scoring area while providing excellent blocking and rebounding position. Usually the smallest and quickest man plays the point with the two strongest and best rebounders in the deep spots. At left, the zone is being attacked by a 1-3-1 offense as shown in the top drawing (A). All five defensive men are turned toward the ball as the first pass goes from the offensive guard to his right wingman. In Drawing B the entire defense setup responds with the ball, wheeling to the left but still retaining its 1-2-2 shape. No. 1 moves toward the man with the ball, playing him just loosely enough to prevent a pass to the pivotman, No. 2 drops back to protect the foul line, No. 3 shuts off the lane, No. 4 protects against a quick cut by the cornerman and No. 5 fills in at the low position on the ball side. The defense has now set up a tight ring around the pivotman, discouraged the cross-court pass and successfully crowded the foul lane. The man with the ball has two alternatives: he can pass off to his guard or cornerman or shoot over the top from 22 to 25 feet away, which is exactly what the defense wants him to do. The defenders, meanwhile, with three men in position to get to the basket quickly, can box out the offensive cornermen and the pivotman and assume good rebounding spots if the shot is missed.
The 1-3-1 zone
The 1-3-1 is likely to be used when the opposing teams are fairly equal in size. It offers good opportunities for double-teaming and ball-stealing and can exploit a poor ball-handling team, shutting off the passing lanes while still maintaining good rebounding position. The 1-3-1 is ideal, too, for a team that likes to fast-break. The point man and the wingmen, with their running lanes already established, arc in position to hustle down-court at the drop of a rebound. As in the 1-2-2, the point man is the smallest and quickest player. His job is to bother the opposing playmaker and to keep him from getting off an outside shot. The biggest man and best rebounder is stationed at the foul line, while the deep man, in addition to being a good rebounder, must be mobile enough to range to either corner. The offense here is in a 2-3 formation (above). The ball goes to the pivotman (A, left), and as the action develops (B), he turns and looks for a chance to shoot from the top of the key or to pass off to a free man. But No. 4 plays him tight to contest his shot as No. 2 bothers him from the rear and No. 1 retreats, keeping a wary eye on the wingman. The defense is still in a 1-3-1 formation. The obvious pass (C) is to the left cornerman, and No. 3 and No. 5 are prepared for it. They quickly move in to clamp a double-team on the receiver as No. 2, his responsibility for helping in the middle ended, edges toward the opposing team's guard. Caught in the corner, the desperate offensive player tries to get the ball out to his backcourt man, but No. 2 alertly intercepts (D). The offense has lost the ball without getting off a shot.
Perhaps the most puzzling defense to recognize—both for fans and coaches—is the one that Mullaney has popularized at Providence and variations of which are now being used at other schools. Most opposing coaches call it a zone and attack it with a zone offense. That suits Mullaney just fine. The less movement there is against his "combination," the better he likes it. Mullaney, however, insists that it is simply "a man-to-man defense with zone principles." Actually, it is a combination of both. The Providence defense always assumes the alignment of the offense it faces, in this case a 1-3-1 (above). The ball is played man-to-man but—and here is where the zone characteristics apply—every defensive player is always turned toward the ball, and the front men never go with their opposing players when those players penetrate. Instead they trade them off to the deep men. Theoretically, the combination will nullify a height disadvantage and give up only a tough shot under extreme pressure. The stage is set (A, right) as the first pass goes to the left wingman. No. 3 challenges his opponent in a normal man-to-man position (B), No. 2 is tight on the pivotman and everyone else but No. 5 plays a man. The right wingman (arrow) cuts through toward the corner, but No. 1 does not follow. His man is picked up by No. 5, already set on the ball side of the lane. Now the defense looks like a zone. With the ball in the pivot (C), the defense still is in a loose man-to-man stance but with everyone facing the ball. The cornerman has the ball and gets off his shot (D), but it is a difficult one, under pressure, from dangerously close to the baseline.
The Zone Press
This is a gambling defense that has become increasingly popular. There are many variations of it, and it is played either half-court or full-court, depending upon the circumstances and the effect desired. The press can be extremely effective as an emergency measure when a team is behind, as a change of pace to control the tempo of the game, or to harass a weak ball-handling opponent. It is taxing, however, and can only be employed by well-conditioned, aggressive players. The front men must be quick enough to execute a good double-team maneuver, and the deep men, who are charged with looking for the interception, have to anticipate the direction of the first pass and then react fast enough to pick it off. The full-court 3-1-1 press shown above is a favorite with many coaches. As the ball comes in from out of bounds (A, right), No. 2 and No. 3 converge on the receiver, No. 1 moves in to protect against a return pass, No. 4 guards against a pass to the short side and No. 5 zones the two deep men. The trapped player (B) may elect to throw to his deepest man. It is a costly mistake, as No. 5, anticipating the long pass, intercepts. But woe to the pressing team that permits the offense to elude its first double-team. Chances are it will be scored upon before it can regroup.