No matter what level of play, all basketball teams share a common goal: have the higher score when the final buzzer sounds. A strong offense is your playmaker, but defense wins games.
Although some coaches favor active zone defenses, in my opinion a man-to-man defense is your best bet to win championships. Why? Because a man-to-man defense forces your opponents to make decisions fast—and therefore commit more mistakes.
One approach to teaching man-to-man defense is a weekly progression. It’s a strategy that Coach James Jennings of University Academy (Kansas City, Mo.), who trained under legendary basketball coach Bill Shay, firmly believes in. The following is the progression he uses to coach a man-to-man defense.
Begin with stance and footwork
Improper stance and bad footwork are how you get beat on the court. Stay low and wide with your weight on the balls of your feet, and keep your back flat, head up and arms out to your sides. Make sure your feet are active and that you are ready to react to the ball or the player you are covering. (See Improve your footwork with these drills.) Remember, you have to be great on the defensive end every day.
Focus on ball pressure
This is critical. Whether you play in the passing lanes or play a pack line, two things are needed: stopping the drive and pressuring the ball. Without ball pressure, your opponents are free to run their offense at will. Then, once you apply pressure, how will you guard the post? In high school basketball, this is tough to do because of the players’ unequal size. Most coaches do not have a 6’4″ (or taller) player who can dominate the post. Coach Jennings has his players front the post to prevent opponents from getting into solid post position. Do not let the opposing post player get to the block.(See also Improve Your Ball-Handling With Brandon Knight.)
Communication and rotation are key
Players must understand their assignments on the help side. Always be where you’re supposed to be. Defense has to be drilled every day. How many times during a game have you seen a team needing a critical stop, then just when they’re on the verge of getting it, someone fails to rotate and they give up a layup. Most of the time, it’s because of poor communication. You must throw off the timing of the offense and keep the other team from running free through the lane. Closing out on shooters properly must be drilled at all times. High hands, running shooters off the three point line and making contact on the boxout will lead to a solid man-to-man defensive team. (Check out 5 Traits of Great Basketball Leaders.)