Every basketball coach has some type of press in their defensive bag-o-tricks. At one end of the spectrum are the coaches who will start pressing as soon as their opponent enters the gym. At the other end are the coaches who opt to pressure only as a last-ditch effort. Sometimes these approaches will be dictated by depth, relative athleticism (to the opponent) and other related factors.
Over our years of coaching (25-plus at the high school and NCAA Division I levels), we came to believe that regardless of the available talent, some degree of down-court pressure is possible. We felt that three factors typically influenced these decisions:
• The point of pick-up: usually determined by a team’s quickness in locating and getting the ball under control.
• The amount and degree of full-court pressure: usually impacted by a team’s depth and stamina.
• The quality of pressure: this often depended upon how well the defensive team could anticipate the offensive action.
In my first years as a head coach, our presses were met with only sporadic success. Our greatest hurdle lay not in our physical abilities or defensive skills, but in not thoroughly understanding what we wanted to accomplish when we pressed. When we went to pressure, our players assumed that we had to come up with the ball or force a turnover; the mentality was “all or nothing”, which often led to frustration and, eventually, tentativeness in our pressure efforts.
We came to the realization that each of our presses, whether we used multiple looks or only a couple, had to be defined for our players in a manner that allowed them a better vision of our defensive goals. What was the purpose of a particular press? What was the end result of our pressure over the course of the game?
By classifying or distinguishing our different presses, we found we could be more productive and our players more willing to buy-in to each presses’ purpose.
Philosophy of Pressure Game
The dictionary defines pressure as “the burden of physical or mental distress.” Our general defensive aim was to initiate the action and force the offense to react to our efforts. Since change necessitates more reaction than does a constant, one of the best ways to keep the offense reacting is through multiple defensive pressure looks. Therein was the key to our pressure success: each of our presses had multiple, yet separate objectives.
Depending upon the situation we hoped to create (up-tempo, attacking, containment, trap and bother), we varied our presses from game-to-game and year-to-year. This approach enabled us to maintain an aggressive defensive attitude against all opponents.
Defining the Presses
The three defensive constants we expected to achieve each game were:
• Make it difficult to get the ball in the prime operational zone that the opponent was accustomed. Our point of defensive pick-up was determined by the relative quickness we had compared to our opponent. We tried to keep pressure in the passing lanes while maintaining enough pressure to influence the ball-handler into an “east and west” (sideline to sideline) movement.
• Stop the two or three best things that our opponents wanted to do. Although we always tried to attack/take away the strength of the opponents, we had some seasons when we lacked the talent to challenge in that fashion. However, there was always some aspect of the opponent’s offense that we felt a pressure look or location would create issue with the offense.
• Maintain “five on a string.” No matter whether we wanted to make the game fast or to simply contain with pressure, we always emphasized the critical ability to keep all five defenders focused upon maintaining a defensive advantage (5 on 2, 5 on 3, or 5 on 4) by constant movement every time the ball moved (see diagrams 1, 2 and 3).
Diagram 1: All move on the dribble advance
Diagram 2: All move on the pass
Diagram 3: All move on defensive rotation
We started teaching our full-court concepts in the very first practices. We believed that to get our players to have total buy-in, we had to sell them on the merits and mentality of the pressure game. One of the visual images we utilized was asking the players how often had they observed football teams back up to inside their own 35- or 40-yard line to start playing defense. Another ploy was some verbal phrases, like “3Gs – Give Ground Grudgingly.”
We emphasized the following to our players in the early practice sessions:
• We must be enthusiastic and willing the take “calculated risks.” By defining purpose and variations for our presses, we could pretty much determine from where and under what circumstances we could take chances.
• For every basket we give up off the press (and we knew we would give up an occasional bucket), we should get back three for ourselves. These would come from steals, turnovers or other mistakes by our opponents.
• We would exploit the emotion of the press. There is an ebb and flow to every game; with pressure tactics, we will create more opportunities with those segments, usually in the form of defensive “spurts.”
• Playing a pressure game automatically creates for better preparation as it demands alertness.
• The press encourages and demands stamina and good conditioning.
• If we have less talent than our opponents, we must do something “different.”
• Players become better prepared to face pressure when they understand the psychology of the press and play it themselves.
• Even when we give up two or three baskets early, we must maintain confidence. The advantage of multiple pressure looks is that we can change the type of press and then come back later to an earlier-used press.
• A constant in any type of press, regardless of pick-up point or degree of pressure applied, is the ability to control/contain the ball. We worked on this skill every day of the season.
• As coaches, we needed to remain cognizant that presses usually were more effective early in the season when ball-handling skills are weaker. We had to be ready to adjust our presses more often as the season progressed.
In our defensive package, we typically relied upon three primary presses:
• Man-to-Man Press: We had four key pick-up points which could be varied throughout a game or season (see Diagram 4). In our man-to-man presses, we generally wanted strong ball pressure, good help side (sagging) support and all five players in a “Ball-You-Man” alignment.
– Pick-up Points:
· “100” Area: from the offensive inception point back to our defensive baseline. We usually would utilize this pick-up point on dead-ball situations or against teams that were methodical inbounding the ball. From this point, we often would front the immediate inbound receivers and then “cheat” the on-ball defender by playing “center field” off the ball.
· "75” Area: From the foul line extended. This was our normal pick-up point for most presses after made field goals. We’d allow the first pass inbounds (inside the foul line to far baseball) and then match-up man-to-man.
· “60” Area: Just beyond the half court line. We’d sometimes drop to this area when our opponent liked to quick-break on made field goals or threw the outlet deeper. This was also a good point to “disguise” defenses by getting set-up in one particular defensive look and then evolving into a different alignment (zone to man, man to zone).
· “50” Area: Between the top of the defensive key and half-court. This was the deepest point of pick-up for any of our defenses. We taught a “defensive fast break” to assigned spots within “50” to insure we had our most vital positions covered defensively.
SPECIFIC GOALS OF EACH PICK-UP AREA
– Force a five-second count on in-bounds entry.
– If inbounds is completed, same objectives as “75” pressure.
– Force a 10-second count in the back court.
– Constantly “seek leverage” on the ball (no “north and south” drives, only “east and west” movement).
– Allow lateral passes but stay “up the line” on vertical passing.
– Force offensive team to use clock to advance ball.
– Over the course of the game, create a mental and physical wearing-down effect.
• “60” and “50"
– Keep pressure in the passing lanes and body-check all offensive cuts to the ball.
– Shut down the lane area.
– Limit opponents to no more than one shot per possession.
VARIATIONS FROM EACH PICK-UP POINT
• “BLITZ”: This was our version of the “jump and run” defense deployed in our man-to-man situations. We wanted strong ball pressure with denial of immediate passing lanes. We encouraged the dribble and then anticipated “jumps” on the driver to create, in essence, jump-switches. Since indiscriminate use of this techniques can also lead to sloppy defensive play, we generally made this a “call” rather than allowing our teams to over-use the option. However, with some seasoned, well-drilled teams we had, we tried to develop creativity and some defensive freedom.
• 2-2-1 Zone Press: Our pick-up point was usually at the “75” level, but could vary depending upon the opponent’s game strategies. We could play this as a “hard” press (tight to ball, snugging up our defenders closer to the baseline; really creating the immediate dribble and then overplay pass lanes), or as a “soft” press (more “contain” oriented with the primary purpose of forcing the opponents to take five to eight seconds to bring the ball to half-court). This was generally our safest press as it allowed us time to organize and then gave us some flexibility to vary the pressure and traps points.
– Objectives of the 2-2-1:
· Force the lob or bounce pass.
· Allow all backward and lateral passes.
· Influence the dribbler to the sideline for a single (one time per possession) trap with the ball-side middle man and ball-side guard.
· If no steal created, immediately drop to predetermined half-court defense.
• 1-2-1-1 Zone Press: The baseline was our pick-up point for the in-bounds pass. We could, however, adjust this press by backing up to ¾ or ½ court to initiate the defensive pick-up. Typically, this defense was an “immediate” first-pass press which didn’t wait for the dribble to activate the pressure. We could adjust the front three position (Point, 2 wings) to simulate denial pressure (as in our “100” man-to-man press) and then initiate our normal 1-2-1-1 movement after the first pass was made. This type of press was effectively used by several teams in the 2016 NCAA tournament, which resulted in several “fantastic finishes” for teams in the Regional Tournaments. We have found over the years that this press was best utilized from “dead ball” situations (e.g., after time-outs, after made free-throws, after violations) when the clock was stopped and we had time to position our defenders.
Objectives of the 1-2-1-1:
· Surprise the in-bounds passer.
· Trap before the dribble occurs.
· Influence receivers into the “coffin corners” of the court making second pass angles difficult.
· Apply continuous trap pressure as the ball moves through the backcourt.
We tried to achieve trap situations as shown in the diagram, below.
Diagram 5: Trappers (X1 and X2), two “gamblers” (X3 and X4) and one “safety” (X5)
When trapping the ball, we had to remember that we would always leave at least one offensive man open. We played on the “panic” aspect and looked to steal in the logical passing lanes.
Each of our presses was relatively simple in concept. The key to success was in knowing WHAT we wanted to achieve in each; thus, each press was defined with different objectives.
In summary, our press goals were:
• “100” Man-to-Man Press: Create panic, try to get a five-second count; resort to goals of our “75” if in-bounds pass completed.
• “75” Man-to-Man Press: Keep ball handler busy; try to create as much lateral offensive movement (“east and west”) as possible to use up the clock; wear down opponents physical and mentally over the course of the game; not particularly looking for steals or gambling.
• “100 Blitz” or “75 Blitz”: Force dribble and look for “jump and run” (i.e., jump-switch) opportunities; create turnover situations like fumbles, traveling, bad passes and offensive “charges.” Note: This was strictly a “called” defense.
• “2-2-1”: Encourage show passes (bounce or lob passes) and allow lateral offensive movement; look for one sideline trap opportunity and then drop to half-court defense.
• “1-2-1-1”: Immediate trap (do not wait for dribble) on first pass in-bounds; continue trapping on ball movement in backcourt and the drop to half-court defense.
The simple process of “defining” our presses greatly helped our teams realize our defensive goals. Any time the coach can get the players to focus on simple, short, two or three objectives, we believe the odds increase for successful execution of the defense.
Bruce Brown, CMAA, CIC, is executive director of the Ohio Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and is chair of the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee.