Team Principles for Man to Man Defense

Contributed by Brett Ayers. Email the author at

Certainly there can be a case made for simply telling your kids, "Stop your man!" and that will do. But, the reality of the game is that this will not happen often enough to not have an overall man to man scheme along with the proper help and recover spacing and rotations.

One of the biggest keys to a good man to man defensive scheme is what is called player recognition. I think this something that has gone the way of the Dodo, so to speak, in the college and high school game. When a player is three point shooter, and that is what he does well, then you do not leave him open for a three point shot. Or, if an important player or specialty player has hit two or more shots, you do not allow him to continue. You do not leave the hot player alone. This takes recognition and adjustment from the bench, and on the floor from the coach, point guard and other players as the game goes on. Not all scouting plans will be able to account for guys "feeling it" that day or evening. In the game, adjustments must be made.

Now, to make adjustments you must first have an overall scheme that can be adjusted. This scheme that I am going to lay out is one that only pertains to guarding on the perimeter. Interior man to man defense has a different set of rules depending upon the weaknesses and strengths of the big men you have to guard.

What do I mean by man to man scheme? Well, when a team plays man to defense, typically, they will divide the court, the half court, into three sections. The first two sections are the areas on either side of the court, starting from the center of the basket and going out on the 45 degree angle straight out from the hoop. This section going down to the baseline, on both sides, triangle shaped, are two sections. The third section is the middle triangle that is left over encompassing the area between the 45 degree lines around the top of the key.

When a guy is guarding someone on the perimeter in the two outside triangles that extend from the 45 degree angle down to the baseline, the intent is to drive the man either to the baseline side and or to the middle. Now, in determining where you want to drive them, you should first look at your team and assess the prowess of your shot blockers, if you have any, and how deep your front line is. I prefer to drive the offensive man to the baseline in the region and then allow for my big men to take charges. The baseline also acts as a defender in the sense it quickly cuts down the space that the offensive man has to drive. Secondly, it is a much tougher shot to get up and off on the run, or otherwise, without the luxury of having the board to throw the ball off of. It also tends to take the shooter out of the play once the ball goes up on the offensive boards - one less guy to worry about. Guys driving baseline also really tend to leave their feet. You can also trap along the baseline. Now, if you have a great shot blocker who is not foul prone, you will see many teams who try to drive everything back to the middle. I really think that few teams can do this effectively. I think UConn is such a team, with Okhafor who can do this. The one problem is this tends to make for tougher rotations once the ball is stopped. It leaves guys open out in the corners for the three way too often.

Now, if your team wants to force baseline with the sectioning of the court that I just mentioned, you need to have your guys stay square, but just have them move over 3 to 6 inches in order to force the offensive player, or funnel the offensive player down the lane you want him to go. If the defender knows where he is trying to get the offensive player to go it can also make cutting him off a bit easier. As a defender you have a good idea of which direction the offensive player will end up going. The key to cutting off the offensive player is to work on having your guys pick a spot out ahead of the offensive player and get to the spot instead of trying to body up immediately and get even with the offensive player. Once a defender is even he is beat and often will foul.

Once you have a scheme and direction you want to drive guys you then develop the man to man scheme for that area around the three point arc between the 45 degree angles. I think you simply tell your kids to play the offensive player straight up, shading one way or the other slightly only if they have a predominately strong hand. If he wants to go right, force him left, for example. You do that by getting over on his right hand four to six inches with a squared body defensively.

Now that you have set a scheme for your on the ball defense, the next thing to really be cognizant of is your off the ball defensive spacing and, of course, rotation. Rotation is simply a function of spacing and vision. You can rotate only when you have the good spacing and vision.

When it comes to off-the-ball vision, here are the general rules. When you are one pass away from the ball, you need to be two steps back and one step towards the ball, but down, splitting the man with the ball and your man. Not up in the passing lane, but able to see both the ball and your man. If you are two passes away you should be down and three steps off your man one one and half to two steps towards the ball. If the ball is on the opposite side of the court from you on either the 45 degree angle or in the corner and your man is in either of the same positions on the opposite side of the court you should be down, pointing, with both arms out, fingers pointing at the ball and your man and you should have both feet in the paint.

When a guy drives from one of those two triangle sections on either side of the middle that I described earlier, it is the men with guys two and three passes away that will step in and offer the help,  recover or draw the charge.

When guys lose vision, especially when the ball on the wing and a guy is playing defense on a man who is around the top of the key this is where the help and recover and or help and rotate breaks down. Often when a ball is driven, help is given and a pass is laid off to a man on the weak side block, it is because the guy on defense guarding a man in the top region does not keep vision. He doesn't realize that ball has been driven, the first part of the rotation has just happened and his assistance is needed. I might even add that his assistance is required in order for this scheme to work. You may also notice that a lot of guys who drive towards the baseline and are picked up usually get tunnel vision for that pass along the baseline. Those passes can be picked off if the top defensive player keeps that vision and rotates down.

The final and perhaps most important part of any and all defensive schemes, no matter what you run, is COMMUNICATION. Your guys have to buy into yelling out switches, picks, help when they get beat, or double when they decide to trap along the baseline. They should yell, "Shot!" when a field goal is attempted, for example.

Well, in a very long and drawn out explanation, are some thoughts on man to man team defensive schemes and rotations and spacing.