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Coach’s Clipboard: Illinois Fighting Illini Crack The Zone


Coach’s Clipboard, Vol. 5: Finding success against a zone defense can be challenging at times. In this edition of Coach’s Clipboard, we let the Illinois Fighting Illini demonstrate some sound fundamentals of zone offense against one of the best zone teams in the country – the Baylor Bears. 

College basketball is an mixing pot of styles. Some teams press, run and play up-tempo. Others play at a slow, deliberate pace. And teams can find success with both models.

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  • Defensively, man-to-man defense dominates and teams spend the bulk of their practice time fine-tuning their offensive attacks against man-to-man. There are an increasing number of teams using zone defense exclusively. Of course, Syracuse has used the 2-3 zone for many years with much success.

    There are effective concepts that must be executed and the Illinois Fighting Illini (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten) will serve as our educational tool for making great plays against a zone defense run by the Baylor Bears (Illinois won the November contest 62-54).

    The Skip Pass

    Zone defenses react to ball movement. With every pass the defensive players shift to a new alignment. Often a zone will lull an offense to sleep by allowing for passes to the next man while the shot clock ticks away. Passing around the perimeter to the next man is fairly easy for zone teams like Baylor to defend.

    To make the zone fall behind the ball’s movement, teams use skip passes against the zone. These longer, cross-court passes put the zone behind by a couple of rotations and can lead to an open shot.

    Baylor is able to defend the Illini passes to the next man, but when they skip the ball the Bears were unable to rotate quickly enough and the result was an efficient corner three by Kendrick Nunn.

    Playing Behind The Zone

    As stated, players react to ball movement when playing zone defense. Therefore, they must see the ball. Coaches often position players behind the zone in the short corner (shaded area below) or run players from the weakside wing behind the zone for lobs.

    It is difficult for back line defenders to both watch the ball and keep track of players cutting behind them. Below, Illini guard Rayvonte Rice demonstrates the concept of playing behind the zone.

    Baylor is watching the ball and sliding with its movements. They lose track of Rice along the baseline and he delivers two dunks from lob passes.

    Inside-Out Basketball

    Far too many teams are content to launch threes when facing a zone defense. The ball must go inside. There are layers in zone defenses and playing between them and getting the ball inside is crucial.

    Below, Malcolm Hill works in one of those layers and finds an easy basket in the lane. In the second frame we see a great zone concept – inside-out basketball.

    The ball goes inside to Leron Black and Baylor’s defense shrinks. The Illini space around the three-point line and Black passes the ball back out to the perimeter. By getting the ball inside and collapsing the Baylor defense, Illinois finds a better shot.

    Success against a zone defense can be achieved by following these few offensive concepts demonstrated by Illinois.

    As an increasing number of teams commit to playing zone defense exclusively, executing these fundamentals will become a key to advancing in March.

    Next: Who’s There: Big Ten Conference Locks and Bubble Teams

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