Surprise and Change May Change You


I once heard a discussion by a famous coach (whose name begins with “Bob”) about the Pros and Cons of the defensive philosophies “Surprise and Change” versus “Simplicity and Execution.”   Since I had always been an advocate of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid), a simple system that was executed to near perfection seemed to be the way for me.  So for many years, I taught straight Man to Man Defense and didn’t deviate too much from that philosophy.

As time went by, I found myself preparing for many different defenses as we moved from opponent to opponent.  The ones that seemed to cause my team the most trouble were those that changed defenses, sometimes several times, during the game.  Maybe it was a switch from Man to Man to a Zone, or Man Press to a Zone Press, or sometimes it was a surprise Half-Court Trap that caused my team to unravel.  After a while, I decided that this “surprise and change” stuff might not be such a bad idea.

So the question is, do you want to concentrate on making your team really good at one defense or attempt to be pretty good at several?  Is Surprise and Change worth the effort or are you more comfortable being the best you can be at one defense?  I knew that opponents who changed on my team caused me to spend more time developing an offensive strategy than I wanted.  It upset my players and our offensive flow, caused us to turn the ball over more, and often made it difficult for us to win games.  Eventually, I decided to add some changes to my defensive package and through the years found this to be very successful.  

Here are some Changes that I have used at various times:

1. Start out the game in Man to Man and switch to a Zone out of a timeout.  This disrupts the opponent who anticipates you will still be in Man to Man defense and makes them alter their planned attack.

2. Stay with the (switched defense) Zone if the opponent has a hard time scoring against it. I’ve had games where we broke it open with this move because the opponent tried a bunch of 3’s and missed several in a row. However, if they scored a couple of times easily, then we switched back to Man to Man.

3. When on defense, come out of a timeout situation in a “fake” Zone, 2-3 setup, arms out; but then have your players pick up Man to Man as the opponent enters the ball into the half court.  You can often confuse them into running a Zone play against your Man to Man defense.  They also will waste time while readjusting back to their original Man to Man offensive attack.  This is a good move when you are up late in a tight game and time is precious.

4. During a free throw attempt by your team, call for a full court or half court trapping defense.  I personally favor a “surprise” half court Man to Man, Run and Jump defense as a surprise in this situation.  You can even switch the attack by trapping the dribble over mid-court or the first pass to a wing.  When full court pressing, add a defender on the ball out of bounds as a surprise, if you have not been using one in your previous pressing.

5. Out of an opponent’s time out or to start a quarter when on defense, use a surprise Half Court Trap defense.  It can be a Zone Trap, or Man to Man Run and Jump, or Trap the First Pass to a Wing.

6. The most advanced form of Surprise and Change I have used is with a veteran team.  The point guard (safety) calls the change in defense as his teammates transition back  after a score.  This is a hand signal that dictates whether we want to Zone, Man Trap a dribble,  Man Trap a pass to the wing, or just stay in our base Man to Man defense.

I found that changing just a couple of times a game has gotten us some quick steals that lead to momentum swings in our favor.  But if you change too often, the surprise element is eliminated and changing may not be as effective.  Find a system that fits your coaching personality and personnel.  Maybe Surprise and Change will “surprise” you and “change” the way you coach too.

Key Teaching Points:

1. You don’t need to be really good at a “surprise” defense, if you only use it for a possession or two.  Just hustle protecting the basket.

2. If you change too often, you lose the element of surprise.

3. It is hard for a zone team to change to Man to Man and be effective.  Use various zones or zone traps instead.

4. Surprising your own team in practice is a great way to learn how to handle pressure situations.  Encourage communication.

5. Hand signals are useful for communicating defensive changes by your team.  


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