Attacking Zones through Small Combinations

In Coach, edited by Andrew Blauner, John McPhee’s chapter “VBK” centers on Butch van Breda Kolff and his relationship with Bill Bradley at Princeton.

Van Breda Kolff simply tells his boys to spread out and keep the ball moving. “Just go fast, stay out of one another’s way, pass, move, come off guys, look for one-on-ones, two-on-ones, two-on-twos, three-on-threes. That’s about the extent,” he says. That is, in fact, about the substance of basketball, which is almost never played as a five-man game anymore, but is, rather, a constant search, conducted semi-independently by five players, for smaller combinations that will produce a score.

Van Breda Kolff’s philosophy is perfect, especially at the developmental level. The coach gives the players some ideas to use to create these smaller combinations, and then the players use the spacing to create a shot. Too many teams and players are hamstrung trying to run a play or set up a play rather than understanding or learning to understand how to play basketball.

Here is an example of a Princeton University women’s basketball set used to find smaller combinations and create a shot through some basic tactical skills (I saw this in November, so it may not be exactly what Princeton runs, but my version based on my recollection of a frequent set of theirs).

The concepts are simple. First, get the ball to the corner and force the baseline defender to defend the ball in the corner (any zone defense becomes a 2-3 when the ball goes to the corner). Second, dribble out of the corner and fill behind the ball. If the baseline defender (O3) does not stay with the ball, she drives to the basket or shoots the open shot; a defender cannot leave the ball. If O1 leaves the high post area too quickly to push O3 off the ball, the offensive player in the high post is open for a shot or drive.

When X3 passes to X4 in the corner, O5 has to move to the ball or give up the open three-pointer. As she closes out, nobody is there to defend X5 cutting to the basket.

If O4 or O2 commit to X5, X2 or X1 is wide open for a three-pointer because the defense would be committing four players to three offensive players on the strong side.

This is simply a matter of using one basic tactical skill (dribble and fill) to create an advantageous smaller combination to get the ball inside against a zone defense.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching,
Playmakers Basketball Development League

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