Defeating the Half Court Zone Trap

The Half Court Zone Trap Press Offense

A Half-Court Zone Trap Press is another version of pressure defense that can disrupt your team and cause them a lot of trouble.   It certainly happened to my teams a couple of times early in my career. Eventually I learned to have a half court press attack ready at the beginning of every year and reviewed it often during the season.

In a half court trap, opponents will attempt to trap you as you cross the mid court line and no sooner.  The best way to beat this press is the same as any other; that is, beat it up court before the opponents can set up.  Use the (4) to (2) long inlet pass option or the (4) to (1) to (2) quick passes up the sideline.  But if neither quick attack option is available, we brought the ball up under control on the dribble, but with One Big Exception.  The point guard did NOT cross the mid court line UNLESS he could easily get 15 feet past that line.  (Diagram #1)  The defense wants you to dribble it across so they can trap you inside the mid court line, thus, using it as a third defender and eliminating the back pass option.  The best attack is to dribble near to the mid court line, but not across, draw the defense toward the ball, and then use the Four Looks: sideline, middle, cross court, and reverse. (Diagram #2) When reversed, the (4) will usually be able to hit the opposite wing on his side of the court as the zone defense tries to recover to that side.  The middle man (5) must be used as much as possible though, to force the defense to cover the middle.  This opens the reverse pass option and leads to a wing pass to the (5) cutting for a potential inside score.  The wings (2) and (3) should space out behind defenders on their respective sides of the court, looking for a pass over the top of those defenders from (1) or (4). Or if needed, the (2) and (3) can flash up from behind their defenders to receive a pass from (1) or (4) in the backcourt.

Once the ball enters the forecourt, players should continue to keep the court spread with (2) and (3) in the corners, (5) in the middle, with (1) and (4) at the top, behind the 3 point line. As long as the defense keeps trapping, this formation (a 2-1-2), allows for easier swing passes and reverses which makes the defense scatter and scramble to cover your team.  This can lead to some great opportunities for open looks at 3’s, inside/outside/inside passing, and drives in seams created by the scrambles. Along with ball movement, you will free up (5) in the low or mid post, or your shooters in the corners. If the defense stops trapping and drops into a regular Zone or Man to Man defense, you can quickly shift to the appropriate offensive set. A key is to look to score inside early, before the defense can recover from any trapping pressure. When a great scoring opportunity is not available, then move to the appropriate offensive half court set. With my teams, the (4) would move to the post if the defense dropped into a non-trapping defense. That way we had our Hi/Low Offense set for a Zone or Man to Man attack.

Key Teaching Points:

  • Recognize Half Court Traps and avoid dribbling across mid-court and stopping.
  • As long as an opponent is trapping, keep it spread and move the ball.
  • Don’t settle for rushed or poor shot attempts.  Use the extra pass and score.
  • Point Guard take inlet pass on the left side sometimes to change up.
  • Review these Press Attacks regularly in your practices, either 5 vs 5 or at least 5 vs 0.

Score On The Opening Tip

Philosophy of the Opening Tip Play

Because I generally had taller players in my programs, especially at my High Schools, I looked for ways to control the tip and score right away when possible. Controlling the tip means you first have to find a player who can get up and win it. The taller player does not always win the tip. A quicker jumper beats a taller player quite often. With that in mind, the first part of our Tip Play was to be quick to the ball and get there first. I would tell my best, big jumper that his job was to get up early, as soon as it looked like the referee was about to toss the ball. Get up first and you win the tip almost every time. And if our center jumper went too early, the referee would usually just call for a re-jump and we got another chance anyways.

We did learn to control a very high percentage of all jump ball situations, so I eventually came up with two Tip Plays that I used through the years. Sometimes we were so effective with them that opposing Coaches would have their four defenders all stand back in their defensive end, so we wouldn’t score so quickly and easily. When that happened, we just tipped back and went right to our Early Offense or a Set Play. But if they challenged us with a regular line up on the opening tip, we were always ready.

Tip Play #1 – Tip Forward

Our best jumper (5) was in the circle, as usual. The next biggest player, who had to be tough at getting tipped balls, was in the (4) spot with his back to our basket. The wings (2) and (3) were on the sides of the circle, seeking to draw attention. Our point guard (1) was back to defend our defensive basket in case we lost the tip.

The ball was tipped by (5) to (4) on the side away from his immediate defender. As the ball went up for the tip, (2) and (3) took off wide toward our offensive end. (Diagram 1 Below)

When (4) got possession, he turned and looked in the easiest direction for a wing cutting toward our basket. This would often result in a dunk, a lay up, or a pass to the opposite wing for an open layup or dunk. (Diagram 2 Below) The goal was for (2) and (3) to beat their defenders to our basket and out number the opponent’s safety.

If the (2) and (3) were not able to get an inside opportunity, they would wait on the wings for the (4) and (5) to come rumbling down the lane. This often led to a post up opportunity for one of our Bigs.

Tip Play #2 – Spread

This play worked the same as the first one, only we spread our wings out wide, near the sidelines. This often confused the opponents and left our players open for easy scores. Most teams line up with you on the circle, but what will they do if you spread two players out wide? Will they stay on the circle? Go out part way to cover a sideline player? Or just scratch their heads and do a little of both? The Spread actually made it easier for us to get the tip to (4) usually, because the circle was less crowded. The (4) would then just turn to a side and look for a teammate, just like he did in the regular Tip Play #1. (Diagram 1 Below)

Sometimes, our center jumper (5) would see the confusion of the opponents as they lined up. If he noticed an obvious open sideline, he would signal that teammate and tip the ball to the open area for a wing to get it. (Diagram 2 Below) Again, this would lead to the same possible 2 vs 1 attack, but eliminated the tip and pass through the (4) man.

Tip Plays are an exciting and fun way to start any game. When your team can open the contest by scoring within 5 seconds, it sets the tone right away. Your team has come to play and play fast and hard. Work on getting your quickest leaper to jump just a little early so you get most of the tips. Have a Tip Play or two that you can use to start every game. It doesn’t take much time to put these in and they will add a little something extra to your offensive attack. That something extra might just be the two points that eventually wins the game for you.

For more Running Game Ideas and Plays, purchase Coach Battenberg’s newest book, “You Can Run With Anyone.”

Coaching the Offensive Star Who Is a Defensive Dud

As Basketball Coaches, we have all had them. Players trying out for the team who were some of the better offensive players, but who often thought “Defense was something you put around De Cows.” It’s especially frustrating for a Defensive-minded coach whose best offensive talent is not interested in putting much effort into the defense.

Having headed up eight different programs in my 35 years of coaching (two at the college level and 6 at the high school level), I have had plenty of opportunities to deal with these situations. Since I was a Defensive-minded basketball coach myself, it was very important for me to have motivated defenders. Sometimes I inherited really good offensive players who never had much defensive training. Teaching the fundamentals of defense was not a problem for me, but convincing everyone to give their best effort on that end of the court could sometimes be a challenge.

So how do you deal with a good offensive player who doesn’t give much effort on defense? Do you assign him to guard a weaker player and hope for the best? Hide him in a Zone Defense? Or maybe bench him till he decides to put forth a better effort? These are some serious considerations a Head Coach has to make for the good of his team, his program, and the season ahead.

My Philosophy was to build our Culture around always “Playing Hard.” This started with Defense because I promoted it from the very beginning. “Defense wins Championships.” “When the Offense is Struggling, Defense keeps you in the game.” These were sayings my teams heard me use often. And I always had time set aside for Defense in every practice session. Usually our practices ended with various breakdown drills and 4 on 4 defensive work because I wanted to sell players on the idea that Defense at the end of the game, when everyone is a little tired, is the most important. This is where you can win or lose a close game.

How do you work with the “hot shot” offensive star who doesn’t play defense to your satisfaction? With a strong defensive philosophy in place and emphasized, I believe it comes down to management.

Here are some thoughts on that:

1. Talk to the player privately and again emphasize the importance of Defense. Encourage him to be a “complete player” for his own good, as well as the team’s, by working harder on defense.

2. In early season practices, set a tone for defense each day by naming the 5 best defenders to the First Group.

3. If you have Summer League or Fall League games, start the 5 better defenders. Same goes for opening the regular season. This will let the “hot shot” know you are serious about what is going to happen. It will encourage him and others to work for a spot in that starting lineup.

4. As the “hot shot” starts to work a little harder at defending, praise him from time to time, both in private and in a group setting.

5. Don’t start him immediately when his effort improves. Let him keep coming off the bench and play shifts that correspond to his effort on defense. If he starts lagging, sub him out.

6. After a consistent effort pattern on defense seems to be settling in, move your now more “complete player” to the starting lineup. But if the effort lags again, sub him out and again let him know why this is unacceptable.

7. Hopefully before the end of the season, you will have a player who plays defense like you want. And the kind of team effort you want.

Often Coaches are afraid to challenge a good offensive player with loss of playing time or loss of a starting assignment early in a season. It comes down to the bigger picture. What do you want to see at the end of the season? Are you going to get there by catering to a defensive liability on your team or a self-serving attitude that won’t adapt for the sake of his teammates? If so, you will probably be in for a very frustrating year.

Remember, lack of effort and lack of ability are two different considerations on defense. When you have a player who hasn’t learned to play fundamental defense, or is physically or mentally slower in reacting, you need to recognize this. Here you can consider assigning the player to a weaker opponent, or playing zone defense, or other adjustments to fit the situation. But when it is a lack of effort or desire, a Coach needs to address the situation or be able to live with the end results. Weigh the possibilities, come up with a plan, communicate with the players, and follow through. You will be glad you did.

Don’t Pigeonhole Your Assets on the Perimeter

Big Man Physical Play

I hear modern day basketball philosophers say they don’t believe in “pigeonholing” players; which often means they don’t want to force anyone to play inside just because they are tall.  The success of outside shooting by Steph Curry and other Professional Basketball Players recently, has created a love affair with the 3-point shot for high school players and coaches alike.  So now it seems more and more teams are shooting up 3’s and ignoring any semblance of an inside game using Post Players.  

Two of the more popular ways to use Bigs now-a-days on high school teams seems to be:

  1. Let them stand outside, avoid contact, and shoot 3’s; or, if they can’t do that,
  2. Let them sit on the end of the bench.

To me, that’s what’s known as “Shrinking your assets.”  A tall player on the bench is certainly not much help to his team.  And a tall player who always stays outside and never takes advantage of one of his best assets isn’t being used properly either.  As a career-long Big Man Coach and author of the first book on post play, Complete Book of Basketball Post Play, I was always able to find ways to use my taller players inside on my teams.  Without their contributions, we certainly wouldn’t have had the success we did over the years.

With the recent popularity of 5-out offenses, it often means no one ever has to play inside.  So, the Bigs have to shoot outside well enough to play or they sit on the bench.  I don’t buy that philosophy and never have.  Taller players have so much that they can do to help a team win:  

1. They can intimidate with the threat of shot blocking.  

2. They can reach rebounds that other players may not even be able to jump and get.  

3. They can score over shorter defenders.  

4. They can see over defenders to make passes that lead to assists.

And that’s just a few of the bonuses that taller players can give a team.  So this begs the question: How can a coach not take the time to develop his Bigs inside and use them in his system?  

A taller player without a good outside shot can be taught to score with inside power shots, short bank shots, and close-in jump hooks. This can all be accomplished in much less time than developing a consistent 3-point shot.  All it takes is a little direction by the coach and an 8-12 minute session each practice to work on some inside skills.  Also, taking an excellent shooter and putting him at the low post once in awhile, to use his touch for shooting over shorter defenders, is a high percentage option that should not be ignored.  Actually, if a coach is not working to develop all players into tough, inside finishers, he is doing a disservice to his players, whether tall or short.

While young Big Men do need to learn to protect the ball and use their teammates, they also need some basic footwork and finish moves too.  These include the baseline, drop-step, power shot; the face up, lift fake, go by; and the jump hook to the middle.  Eventually, all moves can be combined to give players a basic, inside game.  The jump hook can be considered advanced and only used when a player is comfortable with it.  Some may never use it, but will have the ability if ever needed.

In my training, Bigs also spend time shooting 3’s from the top of the key.  I want them to learn to shoot outside too, no matter what their scoring potential might be from that distance.  The Delay Man (4) on my fast break stopped at the top of the key and if he couldn’t hit a shot from there once in awhile, his defender might just back off and jam the high/low play that I liked so much.  Bigs also do ball handling warmup drills and other perimeter skills along with the guards.  I believe in well rounded players who can play inside and outside.  But often times, a young Big had very little experience or skill from the perimeter, so he learned the game from the inside/out from me.  My plan was for inexperienced, taller players to learn to use their size inside and then gradually build their perimeter game.

All players need to learn how to accept contact and play inside.  If a coach never teaches his shorter players to play inside, that is no different than never teaching Bigs to play outside.  Teach everybody how to score inside and you will have a more versatile, tougher, and better team.  And when it comes to the Big Man, Don’t Shrink Your Assets.  Let the Pigeons Come Home to Roost – in the Low Post – at least once in awhile.

For more information on Post Player and Big Man Development, check out my website:

Or get my book, Power Post Play, at

Building a Winning Basketball Program

A 6 Step Approach

After spending 35 years as a high school and college basketball coach, I can look back and reflect on what I believe made my eight different head coaching experiences successful. Yes, often times it was the talent I was blessed to have in those programs. In fact, in my six high school head coaching jobs, I can be pretty confident saying I had the best run of talent in those schools’ histories to that point. But I also believe that I did some things at each of those high schools, and my two colleges, that helped create a better basketball program. Below are six of the most important that helped me achieve that goal.

  1. Do something a little different offensively and defensively than your opponents in league.

My philosophy of basketball was usually quite different from many of the high school coaches I went against. While others were using switching man to man defenses or playing a zone, and running deliberate offenses or perimeter attacks, I liked to fast break, use the post players inside as a focal point, and employ straight man to man defense along with some “Surprise and Change” defenses too. I always figured if the opponent had to spend extra time preparing for what we did differently, and they weren’t familiar with our pace, than we had an advantage. As a coach, you need to do what fits your style and personnel the best, but consider whether you want to be like everyone else, or do a little something different that can become your trademark and cause opposing coaches concern.

2. Be fundamentally sound in your program.

Poor fundamentals lead to breakdowns and turnovers that usually ruin chances for success. By placing an emphasis on the basics and making your team fundamentally sound, you can increase your chances of winning more games almost immediately. When I took over a program, I often watched video of the previous season . This gave me an idea of the types of problems I inherited and helped me organize a plan for change. Sometimes I would even go over past year’s video with my new team and point out these problems so they could see exactly what I was emphasizing in our workouts and practices. That often included my own past teams too, as we moved on to the next season.

3. Work to make better players, but use those more that become better.

One of a coach’s main jobs is to make better basketball players. Not only do your players need to understand and develop the fundamentals of the game, but they should also learn to play smarter and with more skill over time. A good coach should teach proper shooting mechanics, ball handling skills, passing, rebounding, and defensive techniques. Another area I felt was important was the use of our taller players in the post area. Teaching them to take advantage of their size and reach was crucial to their development too. In the end, those who take your teaching to heart and improve to a level above others, deserve to play more in the games. Pointing out deficiencies and weaknesses to your players in private discussions will help them to understand their place in the rotation, and maybe encourage them to work harder to become better players.

4. Don’t be afraid to advance youth & take some lumps now to be better in the future.

I was never afraid to move a sophomore or freshman up to the Varsity team. If I felt they were ready to compete at the Varsity level and could help our team, then I wanted them up with me. Of course, I had to be pretty sure they would start or be in the top two subs when moved up. Playing time is important to their development and confidence, so I usually tried to find out early if a young player was going to be ready. This would mean playing with the Varsity team in the summer, and practicing with them in the fall, where I could observe them in action with their older, potential teammates.

The first year at a program, I often looked to have younger players on the varsity so they would help us obtain success in the future. If I determined the present prospects weren’t talented enough, and some younger ones were exceptional, then I wasn’t afraid to look to the future and go into a “building mode.” Sometimes I even went into “rebuilding mode” when a talent dip occurred after I was at a school for a couple of years too. For one reason or another, a class or two might lack the depth or talent needed to make a real competitive team.

Moving up a very good, younger player always seemed to make our team better. And the young player advanced in skill and experience to become one of our better players in later seasons. I am pretty sure everyone I moved up became an All League type player eventually before they graduated. Most all became recruited players by colleges of different levels, including several at Division 1. I believe early experiences playing with and against older players helped their development far more than being less challenged at lower levels with their own classmates. Since I had that experience myself as a high school player, I always felt confident in using this approach.

5. Keep things simple and do them better.

Being different with your offense or defense doesn’t mean you have to get complicated. Keeping it simple, fundamentally sound, and with the better players performing is a solid base to build on. Some coaches like offensive systems that take a big part of the season for players to become proficient. Others prefer defenses that call for major scouting, walk throughs, and adjusting to be successful. I always liked to start with some fundamentally sound basics on offense and defense, then build on them as the season progressed. Players learn to play quicker, smarter, and better when things are not too complicated.

6. Educate yourself to be the best Coach you can be.

Doing the five suggestions above requires a coach to constantly learn and refine his/her teaching skills. Staying up on the latest trends and finding new ways to present your philosophy, will help you create a system that is a little better and a little different from others in your league. You can find the best ways to teach the fundamentals you feel are most important. You can also discover ways to make your players better individually as well as molding them into a well-rounded team. By attending clinics and studying other programs, you will stay on top of the game and be prepared for what other coaches will try to do against your team too. Finding new ways for “keeping things simple and doing them better” is a big part of a coach’s education.

For more on Coach Battenberg’s Philosophy of Basketball, check out his book, “You Can Run With Anyone.”

A Young Big’s Solo Workout

Big Getting Serious About Today’s Workout

Encouragement Is Key

Getting players to workout on their own can be a challenge for any coach. You can have them come early to practice or stay late for individual attention, but what they do on their own time will usually have a bigger effect. Off season is the time Bigs can make significant improvements in their development, both physically and skill-wise. Bringing them into the gym during the Spring and going over some drills for footwork, quickness, ball protection, and shot selection is how I often approached the issue. Try giving your young Bigs some of these drills and workouts this off season and see what improvements you will get next fall.

Demonstrate What To Do

A player does not need someone to pass the ball to him to practice a post move. They can use the “Self Spin Toss” to themselves to simulate the action. Setting up at the low post, slightly above the block, use two hands, toss the ball out front while giving it a backspin so the ball will hit the floor and bounce back to you. That is the “Self Spin Toss.” Now the player is ready to work on the many aspects of good post play.

The First Habit I wanted to instill in Bigs was to grab the “Self Spin” with two hands aggressively and pull the ball to the “chin area.” We often called this “Chinning the Ball” and it was most important for avoiding needless turnovers. If the ball is brought to the stomach or down by the knees, a Big is basically asking for “Help Defenders” to reach in and knock the ball loose for a turnover. This needs to be avoided by all Bigs, so establishing the “Chinning Action” will help eliminate many potential turnovers.

The Second Habit I liked to instill was “Sensing the Defense.” This is hard for a player to do on their own without a defender present, so I had them work on “Checking Baseline” in their solo workouts. When the baseline is open, I like my post men to attack there. When a player does not sense or feel a defender on the baseline side, check & attack is usually open.

The drill has a player Spin, Chin, Check Baseline and then react with a one bounce Power Shot to the rim. The footwork is called “Drop Step” and it starts immediately after the “Check” with the baseline foot stepping toward the basket. The ball is then bounced as the trailing foot moves forward to square the shoulders of the player to the backboard. This puts the offensive player in a position that allows his body and head to protect the potential Power Shot from being blocked easily. Squaring the feet parallel to the baseline or backboard is an important concept post players need to learn to be effective inside scorers. Next, the player explodes off of two feet toward the rim and uses the glass to finish a successful score. Always using the glass as an assistant in completing this high percentage shot is what makes it “high percentage.” Under the basket is no time to be “cute” or “soft” when trying to score in this highly contested area. Dunk it or use the glass was my preference.

Working Both Sides of the Low Post

A player should work his “Self Spin” and Footwork Drills on both sides of the basket, starting on the lane line, somewhere slightly above the “block” as previously mentioned. This is an important visual starting point for Bigs to set up and learn that the Drop Step Power Shot is easy and comfortable to execute from there.

As far as which hand to shoot with, I just wanted the Big to finish strong and feel comfortable in scoring. If they were skilled and comfortable using the right hand on the left side (closest to rim) and left hand on the right side, that was fine with me. But for young players without much experience, using the stronger, more comfortable hand all the time worked just as well in their Baseline Power Shots. If the baseline is open and the offensive player stays parallel to the backboard (Squared Up), then the success rate of scoring without getting the shot blocked is always very high.

The Basic Drop Step Move is the initial move for a beginning Low Post Player. With the Self Spin Pass, a player can also work on Turn-Bank Shots, Middle Jump Hooks, Front Pivot Up & Under Moves and other such more advanced Post Area scoring attacks. The idea is to perfect each move first, before moving on to another. Especially with very young, unskilled Bigs in grades 7 through 10, footwork, with quickness and accuracy in scoring, is the goal of these drills. The more work they can do on their own, the sooner the player will improve and the sooner the Coach will have a serviceable Big in the low post.

Key Teaching Points:

  1. Give young Bigs encouragement and special attention. Take the time to help them develop skills that will benefit them and your team.

2. Have special blocks of time to work with the Bigs alone, either during practice, or before or after practice.

3. Teach the Drop Step Power Shot first to young Bigs. Then add other moves as each is perfected. Limiting what a young, tall, developing player needs to do is a key to keeping him comfortable and confident.

4. Encourage off season and in season work on their own. The more a player works on basics, the quicker he will become an asset.

5. Praise advancement and success in skills as they are developed. Hard work deserves a reward, so mention it and use your new found talent.

For more on Coach Battenberg’s Post Player Development, consider purchasing his book Power Post Play.

Be a Better Coach by Seeing the Big Picture

Watch the ball or watch the game?

It became clear to me long ago, that too many Coaches in basketball watch just the ball and miss a lot of what is and is not going on in a game. It’s easy to do. The ball going in the basket often is what makes good offense. Stopping an opponent from getting the ball in the basket is obviously good defense. So everyone tends to watch mainly what is going on with the ball, including most Coaches.

By watching only the ball, a Coach basically becomes a Fan rather than a leader who is looking to get the most from his team. Are the players doing all the little things that lead to success on the scoreboard; such as: Transitioning hard on offense and defense? Helping from the weak side when playing defense? Going to the boards to get rebounds? Or other aspects of the Coach’s Philosophy that might be getting over looked? Seeing the Big Picture in coaching is a key to getting a team to play at its best. Without it, players may let up, form bad habits, or fail to do their part for the success of the team.

I have watched many teams play and wondered how the Coach did not notice his players were getting back slowly on defense? Or why they were standing and watching as a shot went up and then failed to go for a rebound? The Coach might sub a player out of the game for throwing a bad pass, or taking a bad shot, but those are “ball involved” situations that anyone can see. What about those peripheral things that make a big difference? Why do so many Coaches fail to recognize those situations?

It all comes down to “Seeing the Big Picture.” As a Coach, do you see the whole game? Or are you a “Ball Watcher” only? Yes, you can watch the film the next day and find the corrections you will want to make later. But wouldn’t it be nice to see them as they happen and make corrections immediately, during the actual game? Being able to expand your vision and see more of the action is a key to being a better game coach.

Here are 8 Suggestions to help Coaches learn to see more of what’s happening on the court:

  1. Educate yourself in all facets of the game; offense, defense, and all the basic fundamentals that will help your players execute better. Then teach it to them in practices.

2. Train yourself to see all the action in practice. Learn to watch the “big picture,” even if you have to visually scan back and forth to see everyone. Watch the ball, but use peripheral vision or scanning to get the full picture of what’s really going on.

3. Stop the action in practice and correct players immediately if they are not doing what they are suppose to do. Don’t ignore or wait until later to talk about it. This is practice. Fix things immediately.

4. When your season starts, make a conscience effort to watch more than just the ball early in games. Try to observe the things you worked on in practice. Don’t turn into a cheerleader instead of a “coach.”

5. If you find yourself reverting to just watching the ball, try starting again at the beginning of another half or quarter. You build good habits just like your players do; by correcting the situation and rehearsing it over time.

6. When you see things on the periphery done wrong during the game, do what you did in practice. Correct it immediately, especially early in games. That might mean subbing an offending player out and talking to him about his mistake. Let him know this cannot continue to happen.

7. If you ignore mistakes in effort and execution during practice or games, your players will not improve much over the season. Use your new ability to see the big picture to your advantage. Developing smarter players makes a better team.

8. If you have assistant coaches, train them to watch for certain things. Maybe an area that you find hard to see yourself. Have them take notes and discuss with you at half time or at time outs. Then try to watch for those deficiencies yourself when the action starts again.

Personal Experiences

I became a pretty good “Big Picture” Coach because I had to work by myself most of my career. I often had an assistant on the bench during games, but I generally was all by myself at practice, especially in my early years. That is when I really had to learn to organize and oversee a practice, as well as coach games, using the “Big Picture.” I worked to be a student of the game, always searching for better ways to do things. And I watched practices and games with an eye toward making sure things were done properly.

At several of my schools I had an excellent assistant who came to games, but not practices because of his day job. I liked having him do our defensive assignments during games so that we would have the right matchups in our non-switching, Man to Man Defense. When he was there to help, it certainly freed me up to watch all the other aspects and execution of our game plan. Obviously, when he wasn’t, I was challenged a little bit more to do a good job.

Another way I sometimes used an assistant, often a second assistant, was to have him sit next to me with a clipboard and write down notes I would mention. This was very useful for half time adjustments, future time outs, or even later practice plans. I didn’t have the benefit of assistants too often, but when I did, I tried to use them for the benefit of all in the program. This gave me an even better view of the Big Picture.

A Final Word of Advice: If you are an Assistant Coach without specific responsibilities, practice watching the “big picture” in games and don’t just be a Fan watching the ball. This will help prepare you for your future as a very good Head Coach someday.

Protecting a Late Game Lead

When you “play to Win,” you may sometimes lose. But when you “play not to lose,” you often end up not winning.

One of the biggest decisions a Coach has to make when his team is leading late in a game is, “when and if” to slow the game and protect the lead. This decision becomes even more vital when a shot clock is involved in the game. States without a shot clock in high school basketball allow coaches to have their teams slow down at any time. But when a shot clock is involved, consideration must be given to many factors that may not be as important as when there is not a shot clock. Factors like: Taking a shot in 30/35 seconds, as opposed to not having to shoot at all if you so choose. Or, how many blocks of 30/35 seconds can your team survive if you don’t score in any of them?

I coached for many years without a shot clock. California was the first to adopt the shot clock in high school basketball in 1997, so I also had plenty of years to coach teams with the clock. What I found is that playing with the shot clock requires more coaching than it did before we had one. Late game situations with the lead are certainly some of the toughest. Players go through almost a whole game looking to score as soon as a decent shot presents itself. Then, all of a sudden, a Coach may order them to work the shot clock down to the end and still find a way to get a great shot.

Whether you have a shot clock or not, Coaches still need to have a good feel for their team’s ability to finish up a game with the lead. Coaches should consider these questions before deciding when to slow the pace:

  1. What is the foul situation? Who’s in foul trouble? Are you in the bonus yet?
  2. What is your lead? Double digits? Too close for comfort?
  3. Do you have a “slow-down attack” that the players can comfortably use?
  4. How has your team responded when asked to slow down in past situations when ahead?
  5. With how much time remaining are you comfortable your team can use a slow down or delay game approach?

A key for me was to always “play to win” and not sit on it too soon so we ended up “playing not to lose.” Time needs to be on your side and the pressure to change that should always be on the opponents. If you “pull the plug” on your momentum by slowing your attack too soon, you might just end up with a loss. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” is not something a coach wants hanging over his head at the end of a game. That’s why it is so important to have a plan, know your team, and pick the right time to move into a delay tactic. While deciding “When” to slow down with a lead, I usually went with this plan in the back of my head, but always remained flexible with it.

Pulling It Out – Shot Clock Guide

  1. Up 1-3 points + – 30 seconds left or less – opponents will foul
  2. Up 5-6 points + – around 1 minute left or less – 2 possession game
  3. Up 7-9 points + – around 2 minutes left or less – 3 possession game

What you have your team do in those closing moments of a tight game is the key to success in your “slow-down” strategy. How do you set up? When do you shoot? What kind of shot will you take? What if you are wide open early?

I felt it was important to have a special “call” for these situations. Something that let everyone know exactly what should happen at this point in the game. I called it, “2 Minute Offense.” This reminded everyone that we were in control on the scoreboard and clock, so we just needed to execute the “2 Minute Offense” and the victory would be ours.

2 Minute Offense

This offense started as a 4-corners setup, with the two Bigs in the baseline corners, the wings in the mid court corners, and the point guard with the ball in the middle at mid court. Many coaches have used this delay offense through the years, as it was first popularized by Dean Smith at North Carolina University many years ago.

Four Corners Offensive Set

While in the 4 Corners Offense, the defense might lay back, waiting for you to attack and shoot. The point guard needs to read this, then pass to a wing, get a return pass to regain his dribble, but hold the ball until the defense comes out to attack him. When they do, the point guard runs a standard 4 Corners Attack and dribbles at his defender in the middle of the half court. When stopped, he can pass out to any of the four corners and maybe get a return pass to regain his dribble. Or, one of the other two perimeter players might receive the ball and switch places with the point guard. The new ball handler would take the middle and the point guard would move to the now open corner spot.

Quick Hitter Under 10 Seconds

As time runs down and the shot clock starts to factors in, you might need to eventually run a “quick hitter.” Our key was the 10 second mark on the shot clock. If we had not gotten a wide open lay up in the 4 corners, we wanted to get a good shot for a good player under 5 seconds. I generally favored one of two plays in this situation for our 2 Minute Offense. Either a pick and roll for our best perimeter player off our best Big, or a 1-4 Flat Set (on the baseline) for our point guard to take his man to the basket and score, or find an open teammate for a last second shot. The 2 Minute Offense allowed a player to take a wide open lay up at anytime it was there; otherwise, run the shot clock down to 10 seconds before looking to score on a set play at the under 5 second mark.

Often times we would get fouled to stop the clock, as the opponent hoped we would miss our free throws. We needed to knock those down. That’s why I considered free throw shooting so important to our practice plan. If we weren’t fouled, I wanted our best player (or better players) to get the shot up with under 5 seconds on the shot clock. That way, we had a good chance of using up a lot of time, potentially increasing our lead, and putting even more pressure on our opponent to score on their next possession.

Protecting a late game lead is much easier to do if you have a solid offensive plan that your team understands, believes in, and has worked on in practice and even game situations. Give them those opportunities in your practices during “Special Situations” and also early in the season during games, even when you are up more than 10 points late. Game experience is priceless. When it comes to late game situations, make sure your team knows you are “playing to win” and not just “playing to not lose.”

For more on Special Situations, 4 Corners Offense, and Quick-Hitters, check out my book: “You Can Run With Anyone.”

Becoming a Really Good JV or Freshman Coach

Coaching JV and Frosh Basketball

During my long coaching career, I coached a JV (sophomore) team twice. The first time was my first-ever coaching job at Jesuit High in Sacramento, California when I was 21 years old and still in college. The second time was about 30 years later at Union Mine High in Placerville, California, at a new school with no Juniors or Seniors on campus yet. Even though I had many years of experience, including nine at the college level before my second go-around at the JV level, I pretty much tried to do the same thing both times. I aimed to develop sound, fundamental players for the varsity team. It worked out well for me, because in both situations, I became the Varsity Coach of those players the next year.

No matter what level you coach, you should be looking to develop fundamentally sound, unselfish, and intelligent basketball players. Too often, coaches get caught up in “winning the games” and forget to develop their players. As a lower level coach, you have the responsibility of preparing your players so they will be ready to fit into the varsity coach’s system. Here are some suggestions for Freshmen and JV (Sophomore) team coaches that I have found useful through the years:

1. Find a way to have every single player start at least one game during the season. You never know who could wind up being a Varsity starter some day, so let them all experience starting. And it is great for the enthusiasm, effort and team spirit of everyone.

2. Play at least 10 players in the first half of every game. Ideally play everyone on the team in every game if possible. Again, you never know who might end up playing Varsity & who will do something else, so give them all experience.

3. Realize you are developing players for the next level and that they may move up to that next level at any time, even during the present season. Make sure your players are ready and willing to go up .

4. Coach your players on the skills, fundamentals, and playing systems that are needed at the next level. If you are not sure what they are, ask the head coach.

5. Teach “commitment” to the game, the program, and the team. Do not allow players to miss practice or be late to practice without consequences.

6. Man to man defense is the base defense in all of basketball. Learn how to teach it well and use it most of the time in your games. But support your head coach & his defensive philosophy too, even if different than your preference.

7. Never allow poor sportsmanship or a bad attitude to go on without intervening. Correct those bad habits now, before your players move on to Varsity.

8. Set a good example yourself by being on time, being prepared, and being a good role model for your players.

9. Be a student of the game. Attend clinics whenever possible and learn from more experienced coaches. Get to know your head coach’s philosophy too and discuss techniques with him.

Be a good “Program Builder” as an Assistant Coach so you can maybe become a good Head Coach yourself someday.  The habits you form in coaching at the lower levels early in your career will shape the kind of Coach you will ultimately become.  Make sure that is going to be a “Good One.”

Winning the Close Ones – Luck or Skill?

The difference between a winning season and a losing one is often determined by your success in close games.  Teams that win the majority of their close games will generally have good seasons.  Inexperienced teams, under-achieving teams, and “snake-bit” teams seem to be the ones who can’t come up with victories in tight contests.  As a coach, the question for you is often, “How can I help my team win the close ones?”

As a bench coach, I loved the last two minutes of a tight game.  The excitement in the crowd, the focus of the players, and the tension over what the outcome of the game will be, are all factors that make being “the coach” exciting and potentially rewarding.  Of course, losing a tight game is not very satisfying, but still, the “final two minutes” is an experience you can’t find in too many other professions.

Winning close games starts with a solid, tough minded defense. Your team needs to get stops when it really counts, and nothing counts more than the last few possessions of a tight game. Will your team make it difficult for the opponents to score down the stretch? Can they get the rebound when a shot is missed and prevent extra attempts for the opposition? Being tough minded and strong on defense are attributes you want in a team that has to win close games.

Offensively, does your team know what kind of shot is needed down the stretch? Shot selection is important all game long, but doubly important in close finishes. Who is the “go to player?” What kind of shot are you looking to get? What is the set or play that your team should be running in crucial moments? Getting the best shot possible is often a key to victory at the end.

I found inexperienced teams often had a hard time finishing tight games with a positive result.  They need leadership that can help them get over the hump and too often they don’t have it on the court. This is where a coach can have a major influence. What he says in the huddle can sometimes make a significant difference, positively or negatively.  “We have them right where we want them,” is a good position to take.  Or, “The pressure is on them, not us,” is another one that will help some teams through otherwise tough times.  Of course, a coach’s calm and confident manner in times of stress is often more important than what is being said.

Experience leads to confidence.  Veteran teams have usually been in tight games before and won them from time to time.  They mentally handle the situation better than younger teams.  To get experience for young or even veteran teams in “end of game situations,” I found that rehearsing in practice was the best way to prepare them.  I called this, “Special Situations” and I tried to do a five minute block on these in many of our practices.   I put a specific amount of time on the clock, anywhere from 2 minutes to as little as 1 second, and then had a 5-on-5 game-like scrimmage.  I may or may not have offered suggestions to one team or the other as the contest proceeded.  At the end, I had a discussion with the team about the pros and cons of what they did and how they could improve.  Examples: When to foul, how to foul, when to use a time out and when not to use one,  how far you can dribble in 5 seconds or less, what kind of shot is needed in various situations, plays to run to get good shots, and how to run out the clock when ahead.

So, is winning close games luck or skill?  Just remember that “Luck goes to the Prepared.” Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, so give your players the confidence they need at the end of a game by preparing them in practice. You will all have a better chance of feeling the “Thrill of Victory” if you prepare them for it.

Some Coaching Keys to Winning the Close Ones:

  1. Keep a calm and positive demeanor in huddles.
  2. Use phrases of motivation, but of confidence too.
  3. Rehearse late game scenarios in practice as “Special Situations.”
  4. A well-coached team will know what to do in tight situations.
  5. Be sure you have a defense you can count on when it really matters at the end of the game.
  6. Remember, sometimes a loss is the incentive for winning the next time. Experience counts.