Match-up Zone Defense


Posted Jan 17, 2006


I have received E-mails and have read posts on VandyMania asking me to give a tutorial on the match-up zone defense. While it would take dozens of pages and diagrams to give an in-depth report, I can briefly go over the fine pointers of the defense, or shall I say defenses.

There are several versions of the match-up defense, but most of them have the same basic rules and strategies.  Perhaps, the innovator of matching up out of a zone defense was John Egli, former head coach at Penn State in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Egli called his defense a 2-3 sliding zone.  Cutters would be defended by having the initial zone defender slide with the offensive player, thus changing the face of the zone.
 
While a player at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim teamed with the great Dave Bing.  One night, the Orangemen couldn’t handle Penn State’s defense, and the Nittany Lions upset them.  That led to Boeheim becoming a devotee of the 2-3 match-up zone.  His Syracuse teams have used this defense since the late 1970’s.
 
Across the Keystone State, the University of Pittsburgh began utilizing a new type of match-up defense.  They initiated their zone from a 1-2-2 alignment and played zone with man-to-man principles.  The defense kept changing shape to match the offense, and someone cleverly noted that the Panthers’ defense was like an amoeba constantly changing its shape.
 
Tim Grgurich left his assistant coaching job at Pittsburgh to join Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV.  Tark let Grgurich install a new form of amoeba defense out of the 1-1-3 alignment.  This defense added an element of pressure and trapping to the standard match-up zone, forcing steals, turnovers, and an up-tempo pace.  The Runnin’ Rebels made this defense popular nationwide when they destroyed Duke by more than 30 points in the 1990 NCAA Championship game and then fielded the most dominant modern day team a year later. The Blue Devils figured out how to attack it and pulled off the upset of the year in the 1991 Final Four over the 34-0 Rebels.
 
In a nutshell, the match-up zone is a man-to-man-like zone defense.  Players play man-to-man within a zone concept.  If the opponents run a man-to-man offense against it, the defense can take on more of a zone personality and bump cutters to a teammate.  Against a zone offense, more man-to-man principles can be deployed, with cutters followed from one zone to another.
 
All players will have both man-to-man responsibilities and zone responsibilities.  All players will have to play help defense.  It means there will be times when three defenders must guard four opponents and two defenders must guard three opponents.  Unlike the straight man-to-man and zone defenses, every player must adjust to both offensive player movement and ball movement with no preference given to either.
 
A chief goal in this defense is to keep the better rebounders closer to the basket and the quicker players out front where they can exploit the opponents in transition.
 
 
 
Let’s take a look at the three most basic match-up zone defenses.  In diagram #1, we see the initial “home” position of the 2-3 match-up zone.  Many teams prefer not to number the defensive positions, and instead give each spot a name.  X1 and X2 can be called the left and right front positions.  X3 and X4 can be called the left and right corner positions, while X5 can be called the middle position.
 
 
Diagram 2: Here we see the defense matching up to the offense’s alignment.  The offense is attempting to run a 1-3-1 overload against an even-man front.  X1 moves out to attack the ball, while X4 jumps to the high post.  X3 moves out to guard the play-side wing, and the 2-3 has become a 1-3-1 zone.
 
 
Diagram 3: O2 has passed the ball into the corner to O3, with O5 cutting from high to low post on the ball side.  The defense adjusts by sending X5 down the lane with the cutter.  Depending on the strategy being used against O5, X5 can either front him or play behind him.  X3 moves up to play aggressive man-to-man on the ball; if he is a good enough defender, he may be able to keep O3 from passing the ball into the post, allowing X5 to play behind O5.  X4 moves into the middle, while X2 plays the passing lane between O3 and O2.  X1 moves to the key to stay near the cutting O1.
 
 
Diagram 4: This action shows O2 passing to O3 on the wing and cutting to the low post block.  O4 is filling the high post, while O5 stays on the opposite side.  This is a clever offensive move.  The wing will try to feed the low post, or look to find the cutting high post man open for a high-low attempt.  Most zones have difficulty stopping an offense if the ball repeatedly goes to the high post. 
 
The match-up handles this situation better than a straight zone.  X3 comes out to attack the ball.  X2 moves with the cutter and “bumps” him to X5 who picks him up on the block.  X4 moves into the middle.  X1 moves toward the middle, and then drops to cover the high post once O4 flashes there.  It is vitally important that this defense communicates, as X1 may not see the flash to the high post unless his teammates call out the move (something like “flash high.”)  O3 has to pass the ball through X1 and X2 to get it to the high post.  O2 is covered by a much taller player in the low post, so there is no scoring threat there.
 
The 1-2-2 Match-up Zone
 
 
Remember, there are only subtle differences in all match-up zones.  All of them basically want to play aggressive man-to-man on the ball, cut off the near passing lanes, and zone the areas two passes away.  The advantage of starting the defense out of the 1-2-2 alignment is that it creates a fortified wall protecting the lane.  In diagram 5, we see X5 and X4 setting up on the low post blocks.  X1 and X2 set up on the end of the free-throw line, while X3 takes the point.  The player in the X5 position should be the team’s best rebounder and initiator of the fast break.  More missed shots will tend to carom toward that area of the floor.
 
 
Diagram 6: Here we see O1 pass the ball to O3 in the corner.  This is a frequent ploy to try to get the ball into the low post, or return a pass to the initial passer who has cut to the elbow for an open jumper.  The defensive response is for X4 to move to the ball, while X3 replaces him at the low post (a normal zone would have the wing defender sliding to the ball).  X1 drops down to play the passing lane between O3 and O1.  X2 slides into the high post to prevent the pass there (again to stop any high-low attempt).  X5 slides over to help double up on the low post man.
 
 
 
Diagram 7: The offense has successfully lobbed the ball to their 7-foot center on the low post block.  This is an emergency requiring quick defensive action.  The defense must choke the big guy and force him to pass the ball away from the basket.  X3 and X5 must trap O5, while X4, X1, and X2 all close one or two steps toward the low post block.  If O5 is not the best ball-handler, then X3 can try to strip him of the ball or force a bad pass.  X1, X2, and X3 can overplay the passing lanes if it has been determined that O5 is not much of a scoring threat.
 
 
Diagram 8: The ball has been passed from the corner to the point and will probably be reversed to the opposite side.  X3 has to hurry across court for the possible pass from O1 to O2.  X1 and X2 double up on the ball to buy X3 some time.  X4 and X5 retreat back to their home position.
 
The 1-1-3 Amoeba
 
 
Diagram 9: Here is the home position for the Amoeba Defense.  X1 will pick up the ball as it reaches mid-court and attempt to force the dribbler to one side.  The object is to keep the ball on that side and not let it be reversed.  It forces the offense to contract into a small area of the floor, where they can be exploited.
 
X2 begins at the high post and refuses to allow an entry pass there.  X3 and X4 cover the wing spots on their side, while X5 protects the basket like a goaltender.
 
 
Diagram 10: The point has chosen his entry side (about 80% of the time, it will be the offense’s right side).  X2 and X3 jump the ball and double-team the wing player.  X5 moves over to prevent a pass to the low post.  X4 replaces X5, while X1 drops down to prevent a pass to the high post.  Again, the differences in these defenses are subtle.
 
 
Diagram 11: X2 and X3 are shown double-teaming the ball.  X5 is fronting the low post, with X4 defending from behind.  X1 has the high post covered.  In order for the ball to get to either post, the wing player has to pass over a double-team and into tight coverage.  If he tries this, chances are good the defense can get a steal and have an immediate numbers advantage (frequently 3 on 1).  The only logical pass for the wing player is away from the basket and back to the point.  The only pass that can be made across the court to the opposite wing is a lob pass (having to go over three defenders).  If the pass is successful, the defense will have ample time to adjust.
 
 
Diagram 12: The ball has been passed from the wing to the corner.  The defense has very little adjusting to do here.  X5 moves out on the ball playing man-to-man.  X3 replaces X5 at the low post.  X4 cheats a little to the ball side.  X1 drops down a little, while still being able to prevent a pass to the high post.  X2 now plays the passing lane against a return pass to the wing.  Most of the time X5 will be several inches taller than the corner man, so no double team is needed.  However, some teams will choose to trap in the corner with X3 and X5.  In that case, X4 must slide over to guard the low post in a ¾ position.  X1 must continue to prevent the pass to the high post, but he can slide down farther to also provide a bit of support inside.  X2 cuts off the passing lane at the wing.
 
 
 
Diagram 13: The corner has attempted to lob the ball to the other side.  There is a good chance this pass will sail off target and produce a turnover.  The defense responds to this cross-court lob thusly: X4 slides out to the ball; X3 fronts the low post; X5 slides behind the low post; X1 moves out to the passing lane at the wing; and X2 slides over to cover the high post.
 
 
Diagram 14: No matter how hard this defense tries to prevent a pass to the high post, it will eventually occur.  Here, the wing player has lobbed the ball to the high post at the free throw line.  X1 must get up on the player and be as tall as he can.  X2 must hurry over to help his teammate double up on the taller player.  X5 must whip around the low post and front him.  X3 and X4 will slide in the direction of the pass trying to get to the passing lanes.  It is important to prevent the high post from locating an open low post player or from quickly reversing the ball to the opposite side. 
 
 
Diagram 15: Now, the defense is back into emergency mode.  The high-low pass has been made by the offense and placed the defense in check for this possession.  The defense must without delay form a triple team on the ball.  X5 and X3 quickly drop to the block with X2 coming as quickly as he can.  X1 and X4 move into the lane as well; hopefully, the low post player will be shut off and be forced to pass the ball back outside.  If the all-out scramble doesn’t produce the triple team quickly enough, it’s check-mate.
 
 
 
Diagram 16: The offense is now in a two-guard front.  The defense responds by changing to a 2-1-2 look to match the offense.  Most of the two-guard offensive alignments will try to pepper the post with a pass and have the two guards make some form of cut.  For the Amoeba defense, the goal is to harass the high post when the ball is entered from the top.  X1, X2, and X5 all converge on the high post forming a triple team.  X3 and X4 cover the corners from an inside-out strategy.  If one of the offensive players cuts to the basket, X3 and X4 should have enough leverage to prevent the pass.
 
Some Pointers
 
Have the defensive signal caller yell out a term that gives the offense the impression that they are facing a straight zone.  For instance, “2-3” can be called with the players moving into the 2-3 home position.  Each player should raise his arms, giving the offense the impression that you are playing a straight 2-3 zone.  If for some reason, the offense calls your bluff and initiates their man-to-man offense, the defense can actually stay in the home position and play 2-3 zone until the offense finally realizes their stupidity.  Then after the offense changes to their zone attack, the defense can move to the match-up.  It leaves the offense with very little time on the shot clock.
 
Basically, every time the ball is moved, the players must move toward the ball (This is called “jumping to the ball”).
 
When the offense attempts to screen the match-up zone, it should be of no consequence, since the defense will simply switch without worrying about getting beat on the pick and roll (there are zone defenders down low).
 
The handling of cutters is the most frequent problem.  The defender must stay with a cutter until he can bump (hand off responsibility) the cutter to a teammate.
 
Note: A group of coaches took the match-up one step further in the late 1960’s.  They decided to apply this defense full-court, using a man-to-man approach prior to the ball being in-bounded; a 2-2-1 zone while the ball stayed on the side, and a 1-2-1-1 or 1-3-1 zone if the ball made its way to the middle of the floor.  Rick Pitino has used this defense at Boston U, Providence, the New York Knicks, Kentucky, the Boston Celtics, and now at Louisville.  In his college years, on average his teams have forced 20-25 turnovers a game with double-digit steals.  A separate tutorial will be given on that defense at a later date.
 
 
How To Defeat The Match-up Zone
 
  1. Screen a player who has to follow a cutter and then get the ball to the cutter.
  2. Have an outside shooter cut to the basket, then set a back screen on his assigned defender and have the player cut back outside for an open jumper.
  3. Penetrate the seams in the zone and then skip pass to the away-side wing.  This usually results in wide open three-point shots.
  4. Have a player set a baseline screen and cut back to the ball (what is called a kick flash).
  5. Continually move players into the areas where defensive players have to decide when to bump the player to defensive teammates.  Even the best match-up zone defenses will be late with some of their bumps.
  6. Get the ball into the scoring zone before the defense has time to set up.  If an opponent only plays competent defensive basketball out of any type of zone, don’t give them the opportunity to set that defense into action.  Beat them down the floor by continually running the fast break and early offense.
 
Vanderbilt Vs. South Carolina
 
Annually, fans at Memorial Gymnasium witness a rough, physical game when these two teams meet.  The talent level has been quite even as of late, and that makes for exciting games.
 
The Gamecocks are still trying to find their way this season; who does that remind us of? 
 
What can the statistics tell us about our up-and-down Commodores so far? 
 
Field Goal Percentage:  The Commodores are hitting shots at a 45% clip so far—not great but not bad either.  Counting just two-point attempts, the team is connecting on 48%, which needs a little improvement.  Several open crip shots have been missed, as players have been a little hesitant about attacking the goal and taking the best percentage shot of all—the dunk.
 
Field Goal Percentage Defense: Opponents are hitting 43.4% from the field and just 47.5% from two-point land.  These numbers are nothing to set the woods on fire, but they are more than adequate.  There is a small advantage here.
 
19-09:  The Black and Gold are taking an average of 20 three-point shots per game and hitting eight for 40%.  That is quite good.  Opponents are taking 18 of these shots each game and hitting at 36%, which is average.  There is a small advantage here.
 
Charity Stripe: There is need for improvement here.  Vandy only attempts 18 free throws a game and makes just under 70%.  Besides getting a chance to score unguarded, drawing fouls also forces the opponents to go deeper into their bench.  At 70% accuracy, that means a two-shot foul averages 1.4 points per possession and a one-and-one opportunity averages about 1.2 points per possession.  This makes foul shooting a much better option than field goal shooting.
 
Commodore opponents are getting to the line just 16 times a game, which is excellent.  There is a small advantage here.
 
Rebounding:  For the season, the Commodores have picked up just three more boards than their opponents after 14 games.  However, if you look at rebounding the way most coaches do, Vandy is faring a tad better than the statistical dead heat.  The Commodores have missed 25 more shots than their opponents, meaning the opponents have had 25 more defensive rebounding opportunities.  Looking at it this way, The Gold Men are +2 per game (+28 in 14 games).  While there is room for much improvement here with Skuchas, Terrell, Carroll, Foster, and Byars all having the muscle and leaping ability to dominate on the boards, there is a small advantage here.
 
Turnovers:  Vanderbilt’s conservative offense and wealth of above-average ball-handlers has definitely led to fewer turnovers than average.  The Commodores only commit 12 infractions per game.  Better still, only six and a half of these are opponent steals.  Defensively, Vanderbilt forces 15 turnovers per game with seven plus steals.  These aren’t great numbers, but overall it makes for another small advantage.
 
Putting it all together, Vanderbilt enjoys small advantages in each statistical category.  This leads to the appearance of winning ugly.  It’s hard to pinpoint some aspect where the team is superior; they are just consistently above average.  It’s why the Commodores are 2-1 in the SEC and 11-3 overall.  The team may not be flashy or exciting, but they plod through and win more than they lose by enjoying a small advantage in all aspects of the game.  Of course, after playing Florida, LSU, Tennessee, and surprising Ole Miss, the statistics may tell a different story.  Let’s monitor these stats for the rest of the year.
 
Computer Predictions For Tuesday/Wednesday
 
Tuesday
 
Georgia 67  Kentucky 64
 
Wednesday
 
Florida 118  Savannah State 62
Memphis 85  Tennessee 75
L S U 74  Mississippi State 69
Alabama 71  Arkansas 68
Vanderbilt 65  South Carolina 60


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