Tips for creating a defensive-minded team

By Nathan Livesay, formerly of Sumter High School, Sumter, South Carolina

Defense wins championships. This is said so often that some people regard it as a cliché instead of the cornerstone of every successful basketball program.

Photo by Kevin Hoffman
Photo by Kevin Hoffman

There are many types of defenses that will win — from Rick Pitino’s relentless pressure, to Jim Boeheim’s swarming 2-3 zone, to Bobby Knight’s stifling half-court, man-to-man defense — but the common denominator is that all successful teams do what they do well defensively. In my first season at Sumter High School, our team went 18-8 and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. How were we able to turn it around so quickly? The answer is simple: our players rapidly adjusted to a new system and embraced a work ethic and commitment to playing tough defense.

10 keys For defensive success

From day one, your coaching staff must make it clear to your players that the team’s ability to defend is the key to a successful season.

To help your team achieve this goal, the following keys outline exactly what must be done to be a good defensive team. These 10 simple concepts must continuously be drilled into your players’ heads in practices, film sessions and games. Everything you do must revolve around these simple, yet effective, defensive concepts.

  1. Guard the basketball. No defense is effective unless you control the ball handler. Stress balance and containment at all times. Don’t allow your players to get off balance and reach—this is what creates fouls or forces help situations where you need two defenders on the ball.
  2. Use intelligent ball pressure. Don’t let your assigned opponent see the court. Make that player think about you and not the open man. Defenders’ hands must remain active while maintaining the proper balance to guard the dribble. Set a team goal of 20 or more deflections in every game.
  3. Allow no middle drives. Never allow the ball handler to beat you to the middle of the press or the zone. Force the ball to the sideline or baseline where the ball handler’s passing angles are limited and defensive help is located.
  4. Anticipate the next pass. If you know where the ball is going, you should be in position to defend it properly. Defenders must be ready to come up with a steal in case a teammate who is guarding the ball causes a deflection.
  5. Close-out under control. Never run through passing lanes while trying to get steals. Unless the ball is deflected, the defender’s focus must be to close-out, challenge the shot and defend the dribble baseline.
  6. Challenge all shots. Allowing a shot to go uncontested is reason for an immediate substitution. Defenders must get their hands high and challenge every shot. Set a team goal of holding your opponents to less than 40-percent shooting from the field. This goal can’t be accomplished without challenging every shot.
  7. Help-and-recover early. Your defense must discourage drives by using body positioning. If someone attempts to drive in the direction of a defender, you want that defender to fake at the ball handler early and try to make him or her pick up the dribble before committing to leaving his or her assigned area to stop the drive. When this is done well, it reduces the number of the offense’s drive-and-pitch opportunities.
  8. Stop penetration by taking charges. All defenders must realize that if a teammate gets beat, they must be willing to give up their body to take the charge. Set a team goal of drawing four charges per game. When our team set this goal, we took 51 charges as a team 9for the year — it was all in the mindset!
  9. Play without fouling. Nothing ruins a great defensive possession like a foul. Set a team goal for keeping your opponents out of the bonus for the first 12 minutes of each half. Force your opponents to score against a set defense, not from the foul line.
  10. Block out. No possession is complete until you’ve secured the ball. Before every practice and every game, stress the fact that a good defensive team must dominate the glass. You can’t be a good defensive team and give teams extra possessions by allowing offensive rebounds or easy put-backs. Make sure that all five players on the floor know who they’re expected to block out and to relentlessly pursue the ball on every shot. Set a team goal of allowing less than eight offensive rebounds per game.