Basketball Man to Man Defense

How to Play Man to Man Defense
Defensive Man to Man Coaching Tips
By Brad Winters

We call our man-to-man basketball defense Tough. We signal this basketball man-to-man defense by raising our fist high in the air. In Tough, we want to make it as hard as possible for our opponent to score. To accomplish this mission, our major objectives in our team man-man defense is to 1) eliminate all easy baskets, and 2) force our opponent to shoot contested jump shots from the perimeter of the court.

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Defenders Kyle Jones & Josh Winters

"Your ability to motivate and teach your players to play tough team defense will greatly determine your success as a basketball coach... My championship teams played tenacious man to man defense." -- Brad Winters

Man to Man Defensive Strategy
Protecting the Power Zone

The basketball defensive strategy we use to accomplish these objectives is to build a human wall around our basket, and deny all pass and dribble penetration into the power zone (paint). To teach our players to play this style of basketball man-to-man defense we constantly emphasize the following defensive tactics to our players.

Teaching Man to Man Basketball Defense
Basketball Man to Man Defensive Rules

Commit to defense! Great defense is all about "heart" and "hustle."

Get tough on defense! Each possession is a battle. The team that wins the most battles, wins the game.

Talk on defense. A great man-to-man defense is a talking defense. We must have passionate talk on defense - "I've got the ball," "You get him," "Hand up on every shot," "Don’t let your man cross your face," "Block out," "No second shots," "Back screen, back screen, switch," "Pressure the ball, you’ve got help."

See the ball! Stay alert and keep vision on the ball. We play ball defense. Know where the ball is at all times. It is everyone's job to stop the ball and help protect the power zone.

No easy baskets... Sprint back on defense and pick the ball up at the 28-foot line. Everyone else is inside the three-point line protecting the power zone and communicating to their teammates who they are going to guard on defense by talking and pointing at their man.

Deny all penetrating passes. We want to play "ball-you-man defense" inside the three-point line. Our individual defensive position off the ball is "one step off the line, and two steps to the ball."

Don't allow the cutter to cross your face in the lane. Always try to jam the offensive cutter and force him behind you. You must always try to stay between your man and the ball.

Anticipate on defense. We want to try to intercept all lob passes and lazy bounce passes. We only go for the steal if we can catch the ball with both hands.

Defeat the screen. We must stay alert and be hard to screen. We want to fight through screens and keep on moving.

Switch on all hard screens. We believe that the open shot is what gets you beat, not the mismatch. The only screen that we will not switch on is ball-screens (pick-and-roll).

Always protect the power zone when your man sets a screen close to the lane. The basketball defender guarding the screener always opens up and protects the power zone (no pass or dribble penetration).

Every time the ball moves, you move. We want all five of our basketball defenders to move as one on the airtime of the pass, not the catch.

Know who and where the shooters are. The great shooter is the only offensive player we attempt to overplay. To stop the great scorer (Michael Jordan rule), we try to limit his touches on the ball as much as possible.

Dead front the low post if he is a great scorer, otherwise we ¾ front the low post player from on top. If the ball is pass from the wing to the baseline, our low post defender will then cross the low post's face (staying between the ball and his man) and resume the ¾ front from on bottom.

Look to take the charge! Great defenders sacrifice their bodies to protect the power zone.

Trap the low post. When the ball goes into the low post, we must trap from on top.

Dive on the floor after all loose balls. These are the hard-nose, aggressive players that play for championships.

Block out! Make and maintain contact on all block outs. Defenders must be aggressive and “lay the lumber" to their opponent when blocking out. We must consistently block out after every shot.

Rebound the basketball - no second and third shots!

Eliminate silly fouls. Great defenders do not play out-of-control. Fouling, lunging, reaching, etc. is false hustle.

Ball Defense
Basketball Man-to-Man Rules for Guarding the Ball

Know who you are guarding - his number and his game.

Close-out on the air-time of the pass, not the catch.

Pressure the ball!  We want to apply intelligent pressure on the ball without getting beat. Our basketball defender guarding the ball should be within touching distance of their offensive man, low in his stance with his hands and arms up near his mid-section, and ready to play tough man-to-man defense with his feet.

Stop dribble penetration. We must always apply intelligent pressure defense on the ball (give a cushion if needed) without allowing dribble penetration into the paint.

Arc the ball to the sideline. Always force the dribbler outside towards the sideline. We want to keep the ball out of the middle 1/3 of the floor.

No middle, no middle, no middle! Always keep your inside foot high and deny dribble penetration back to the middle of the floor.

Eliminate vision... Belly-up and mirror the ball with your hands high when the dribbler picks up his dribble, and then go for the pass deflection.

Pressure the passer... Do not allow the passer to make uncontested passes. We want to harass the passer as much as possible and get pass deflections.

Intelligent basketball close-outs... When closing out, we must sprint under control, get our hands up, stay low and wide, and begin chopping our feet when we are two-steps away from the ball.

Hands up on all shots! When the ball goes up, the hands go up. We must try to contest every shot (alter or change) by bothering the shooters (no rhythm jump shots).

Help-side Defense
Basketball Man-to-Man Rules for Help-side Defenders

 Help-side basketball defenders must sag and zone. We want our help-side defenders two passes away to have at least one foot in the power zone when the ball is above the free throw line. When the ball is below the free throw line, we want our help-side defenders to have both their feet in the power zone... Help-side basketball defenders must be in a position that allows them to see both the ball and their man (ball-you-man defense).

Early Help! We must always give quick help. You can never help too early to protect the power zone.

Protect the gaps. We must always give quick help on the inside gaps. We teach our players to play "We Basketball" (protecting the gaps), not "Me Basketball" (only worried about your man).

Pinch and fake at the ball. The closest basketball defender from the ball must help seal the gaps by sliding his feet into the gap (pinch) and faking at the ball with his inside hand (as you fake at the ball, yell "hey"). We do not want our defenders to trap on the perimeter, but to stay in an open defensive stance that will allow them to quickly recover back to their man on the air-time of the pass.

Fill and sink on the baseline. When the ball is dribble penetrated along the baseline, our deepest help-side defender must quickly rotate and try to stop the ball one-step outside of the lane (fill). Our remaining help-side defenders must rotate (sink) to the level of the ball (i.e. ball-line defense). Help-side defenders in the lane must stay low with their knees bent in an open defensive stance and see both ball and man (i.e. ball-you-man defense).

In closing, training your team to play tough man-to-man defense is one of the most important jobs of a basketball coach. Your passion and ability to teach players to play man-to-man defense will greatly determine your success as a basketball coach... As the toughness of your team's man-to-man defense improves, so will the improvement in your team's won-loss record.


"I feel all great teams have two things in common: defense and rebounding. So, we stress defense and rebounding every day as the most important aspects in the game to win." -- Coach Larry Brown
"We stop practice every time we see one of our players not blocking out." -- Coach Jim Calhoun
"If one of our players gets his second foul in the first half, then he must come out of the game and not re-enter until the second half. To play defense and not foul is an art that must be mastered if you are going to be successful." -- Coach Chuck Daly
"False Hustle = cheap fouls, lunging, reaching, etc." -- Coach Billy Donovan
"When we're playing a good scoring center, we tell our team that it is not our defensive man's job to stop the center. It's the responsibility of our perimeter people to stop the ball from going inside." -- Coach Bobby Knight
"My players on defense must have a hand-up on every shot. If not, they run sprints." -- Coach Rick Majerus
"Quickness more than anything else should determine your amount of pressure on the ball." -- Coach Don Meyer
"We have a simple rule for switching. Anytime there is movement over the top of a screen, there has to be an automatic switch. If a blind pick is set on one of our defensive players, there has to be a switch. To play good pressure defense, you have to use the switch." -- Coach Ralph Miller
"Your contribution as a coach is defending and rebounding." -- Coach Dick Motta 
"Your defense will save you on the nights that your offense isn't working." -- Coach Adolph Rupp
"Probably the most important aspect of individual defensive play is the 'close-out.' This approach to the ball should be made in a 'step-drag action' with advanced foot moving forward first and then the back foot in a boxer's type shuffling of the feet." -- Coach Tex Winter
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