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Special Strategic Situations

By Glenn Wilkes
Former Head Coach, Stetson University
Website: BasketballsBest.com

A number of strategic situations may not occur in every game, but they do pop up throughout a season, requiring the coach to be well versed in the correct combative strategy. Several of these strategic situations are:

Defensing the Big Center

Fortunately, a team usually does not have to face a high-scoring, big opponent in every game. However, special defensive strategy mustDE be employed when facing such a tall player.

As elementary as it is to state that the big center CANNOT SCORE WITHOUT POSSESSION OF THE BALL, this fact is the key to defensing that player. Once the big center gets the ball underneath, preventing a shot from this high-percentage area is virtually impossible and defensive fouls are often made. Consequently, the defense must be designed to stop the big, fast player from receiving the ball.
The following defenses restrict ball possession by the post player and, therefore, are recommended techniques for defensing this major threat:

  1. The 1-3-1 zone defense
  2. The 2-1-2 zone defense
  3. The “sagging” man-for-man defense
  4. The box-and-one combination defense
  5. The full court press

Any of these defenses can prove effective against the high-scoring center. Most involve keeping a defensive player in front of the center to prevent him from receiving the ball. When using the full-court press, the object is to force ball-handling errors prior to getting the ball into position to pass into the big center. The full-court press can also cause the offense to set up its alignment so far from the basket that a pass in to the post player is more difficult.

In the event the post player receives the ball, some type of double-team strategy must be employed.

Defensing the Fast Break

The key to a successful fast break is the speed with which the outlet pass is made after a rebound. Thus, strategy designed to stop the fast break begins with DELAYING THE OUTLET PASS. The best method of preventing the quick outlet is to press the rebounder and the outlet receiver. Force the rebounder to be cautious with the outlet pass or to take a dribble. Play so close to the outlet receiver that the rebounder fears an interception. This gives the other members of the defensive team sufficient time to retreat into proper defensive positions.

When opposing the fast breaking team, designate two players to check defense on every offensive play. One can take deep defensive position, while the other can press the outlet pass receiver. If two players do not remain back on defense, the opponent will undoubtedly get many 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 situations, which are quite hopeless if reasonably good ball-handlers are executing the break. When two players are kept back for defense, odds favor that at least one other player can retreat fast enough to get into defensive position.

The most successful strategic maneuver against the fast-breaking team is the use of ball-control or “slow break” tactics. The fast-breaking team loves to run and, when forced to play a slower game, can become nervous and overeager. Once they do gain possession, they tend to run and shoot as quickly as possible—in the majority of cases, too quickly. This over-eagerness to break often causes the fast-breaking team to take hurried and wild shots with no board strength and to make more fundamental mistakes. If fast breakers did not dislike facing slow-breaking opponents, they would not try to force the slow-breaking team to play a faster game. I have often seen a slow-breaking, methodical team, greatly inferior in talent, upset a fast-breaking team by refusing to run with them.

Defensing the Slow Break

One axiom that makes sense to many coaches is Don't play your opponents' game; Force them to play yours. This is an important point to remember in mapping basketball strategy, particularly for the fast-breaking team who faces a methodical, slow-breaking team. But it is very difficult to force a slow-breaking opponent to play a different type of game.

The fast-breaking team must try to force the slow-breaking team to speed up play. Therefore, some type of full of half-court pressing defense must be used. A full-court man-for-man press may prove successful. If not, changing to a zone press or some type of half-court press is sound strategy. Keep in mind that the pressing defense can gamble more with a slow-breaking team. This is because the methodical team does not count on taking advantage of errors that might be made by the pressing defensive team.

Another tactic is to double-team the opponents’ point guard or best ball handler and then deny him a return pass. This often improves the effectiveness of a press because it forces lesser ball-handlers to handle the basketball.

If pressing tactics are unsuccessful , emphasize the importance of obtaining good shots once the team gets the ball!Attempt to run if possible; however, do not run helter-skelter down the court and shoot the bad shot. If the ball-control team keeps the ball for 30 seconds before shooting (or longer if no shot clock is used) and the fast-breaking team throws it at the basket within 5 to 10 seconds after gaining possession, the fast-breaking team is playing directly into the hands of the slow-breaking team. The fast-breaking team will find themselves playing defense for three times as much as the methodical opponent is playing defense. Throughout a game, this can amount to the fast-breaking team being forced to play defense over three-quarters of the game.

Attacking the Star Player

Quite often your opponents will boast of one player who is considered their star, and you will be faced with the problem of defensing this player. It is wise to have a battle plan for such an opponent that not only includes special defensive emphasis to stop this player, but an offensive pay directed at him as well. Many stars refuse to play defense. In fact, some coaches feel that placing a tough defensive assignment on their top scorer is too much of a burden. They believe that the star’s scoring effectiveness can be reduced this way. For this reason, direct your attack at the star to make the player play defense or give up an easy shot.  On defense the star may commit more personal fouls than normal, possibly fouling out of the game.

Build defensive plans for the star player around reducing the number of times he gets the ball. The few the scoring opportunities, the less effective the player. If you are using a man-for-man defense, assign your best defensive player to the star and make sure the defensive player overplays and denies passes to the star. Once the star does receive the ball, the defensive player must exert constant pressure, and the other players must be ready to help . In a zone defense, the zone must constantly let each other know where the high-scoring player is so he can be properly pressured.

Defensing Individual Weaknesses

Because basketball requires the mastery of so many fundamentals, it is doubtful that even the most polished player has mastered them all. There are always individual weaknesses, and by careful observation, a coach can detect these weaknesses and adapt defenses to take advantage of them.

Possible individual weaknesses are too numerous to even attempt to list. A poor dribbler could be pressed into losing the ball often. A poor passer could be rushed after becoming “dead” (finished with the dribble). A good outside shooter who is a poor driver could be pressed. A player’s speed determines how close the defense should play.  If a player is a good outside shooter but slow, the defense would guard tightly. If the player is a poor outside shooter, regardless of speed, the defense should drop off and help clog the area around the basket.

Many players are guilty of being “one-way drivers”. They establish the undesirable habit of driving only to the left or to the right. Once you detect the habit, the one-way driver is very easy to defend.  When you know relatively little about your opponents, it is good strategy to play right-handers a half-step to their right and left-handers a half-step to their left. If one does drive the other way, change the defensive plan on that individual. However, if the player proves to be a one-way driver, there is no logic in playing straight away and allowing that player four or five drives before overplaying to one side.

Occasionally drivers are found who do not pass off on their drives. In this instance, defensive players can pick up the player with little fear of the driver passing off to someone else.

Post players often shoot with only one hand. When you notice this, have the defense overplay this post player accordingly.

These few weaknesses point out are selected only to stimulate thought as to the many possibilities the alert coach may be able to use to advantage.


Glenn Wilkes, former Head Basketball Coach at NCAA Division I Stetson University, is a veteran of 41 years of college coaching during which time his teams won 674 games. He currently directs the Shooting Stars Basketball Camp, the  Shooting Stars Point Guard Camp, and the Shooting Stars Big Man Camp.
In addition to camps and scouting, Wilkes directs the BASKETBALL'S BEST BASKETBALL COACHING CLINIC held each spring in a city in the South. He has also spoken at coaching clinics throughout the United States and in many foreign countries including Taiwan, Portugal, Colombia, Latvia, Venezuela, the Bahamas, Korea, and Hong Kong. 

His many basketball accomplishments have earned him selection into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Nike Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, the Mercer University Sports Hall of Fame, and the Stetson University Sports Hall of Fame.


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