Creating a pressure mentality
Our program’s philosophy is to run on offense and pressure the ball on defense. We do that through a combination of zone presses — including the 1-2-1-1 and 2-2-1 — but our bread and butter is our man defense in the half court, which we work on extensively during the preseason and tune-up every day.
At our level of high school basketball, our defensive system is built to:
- Take advantage of weak, indecisive ball handlers by providing lots of ball pressure and taking away their lifeline (the next pass), whether it’s a point guard trying to pass to a wing or a wing trying to pass to the post.
- Keep the ball out of the paint.
- Provide multiple help defenders on dribble penetration if someone gets beat off the dribble.
Using common language
Over the years, we found it helpful to have a common language up and down the program while simplifying our man defensive philosophy.
Out of the five players on the floor, there can only be three roles. After one practice, every player on the team will know what his job is on defense. They might not be able to execute it every time, that comes with repetition and coaching, but they will know these three roles:
- On the ball. This is the player guarding the ball handler while providing plenty of ball pressure. We teach “butt to the rim” and straddling the offensive player’s top hip, keeping them out of the paint. If he drives baseline, then we have to move our feet and beat them to the baseline so they have to pivot back toward the help in the middle.
- One pass away. Any defender who is one pass away from the ball is up denying their man, forcing them out as far as they can. We don’t worry about getting beat backdoor until they prove they’re capable of doing it.
This is different than pack-line, for example. Although pack-line has proven to be a very effective defense, at our level of basketball I don’t think there are enough quality ball handlers who make excellent decisions to justify allowing the pass so they can start their offense where they want it, when they want it and how they want it. We want to make them uncomfortable.
- Two or more passes away. We have to be rim-line. Not one foot in the paint, not denying their man, but right on the rim-line. If you are not guarding the ball, you are either denying or on the rim-line. If you aren’t doing either of those two things, then you are wrong.
We used to teach one foot in the paint when two passes away, and rim-line if it was cross-court. In high school basketball, we rarely get beat for a 3-pointer on skip passes, so we decided to simplify it for our players — on-ball, deny, rim-line.
If you walk into any of our practices, you’ll hear the same refrain over and over, whether it’s a defensive drill or 5-on-5 scrimmaging — “ball pressure,” “top hip,” “good deny,” “rim-line.” Coaching high school basketball, with limited time and the varying degrees of basketball IQ and talent, it’s even more important to simplify your principles around a common language.
I think other coaches would be amazed how many incoming middle school or freshman basketball players cannot tell the difference between the strong side and weak side. However, anyone can easily visualize the rim-line, because it’s literally the middle of the floor. Players don’t have to wonder, “Am I two or three passes away? Should I be worried about my man or helping?” I want players reacting as much as possible on defense.
Simplifying our language has helped the players understand what we need from them in our man defensive system. In the past, by using terms such as weak-side or help-side, I found that many of our players never helped enough. They would think they were helping by having one or two feet in the paint, but they were consistently late getting to the help. Rim-line has solved the indecisiveness. Now, when we tell a player to get to rim-line, they know they can’t do that with one foot in the paint. They must get to rim-line.
Other defensive tips
- Spice up the shell: Shell is a great defensive drill. Early during the preseason, we use shell to create the muscle memory and teach players the language of on-ball, deny and rim-line. However, the next step is to use shell to create game-like situations. Create 3-on-4 situations, player mismatches, get the players to help and help the helper. The possibilities are endless. Don’t use the shell to simply go through the motions.
- Fine-tune during the season: There are always things we can get better at during the season. But you have to reflect on what isn’t working and not be afraid to get back to basics, especially during the season, because every team is different and may have different strengths and weaknesses.
For example, one year our rim-line was looking strong by late December, but our on-ball defense was horrible. We made it an emphasis for two weeks, combining different drills, and then in 5-on-5 breakdowns, and the improvement was noticeable.
- Teach pressing mentality: There are a lot of ways to teach a zone press, but to press, the players must have to totally buy in. If not, you could give up too many layups on the other end. The best way to teach a pressing mentality comes from my high school coach, Harry Ladue, and it’s simple: Have one team be in the press both ways.
For example, the green team would set up in a 1-2-1-1 press in both directions. So, when the green team scores, it presses like a normal game. But when the white team scores, green doesn’t take the ball out. Instead, they press going the opposite direction.
This approach creates an attacking mentality that I haven’t been able to recreate with any other drills or practice situations. Plus, since the pressing team is always on defense, it becomes obvious if they aren’t sprinting back to fill or trapping in the backcourt. It turns into a full-court layup drill if they are not all-in.
Larry Dougher is the boys head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach at Windsor High School in Vermont. He has 13 years of experience coaching high school basketball.