Planet Hoops LogoThis is an excerpt from Bret Tovani’s book Defending The Middle Third: An Approach to Defensive Basketball. See Table of Contents below.

The book may be purchased here.

Defending the Middle Third:An Approach to Defensive Basketball


Developing a Philosophy

My approach to basketball is a work in progress. Like anything that consumes so much time and energy a coach’s philosophy is something that evolves over time. In developing ideas as to how one thinks the game ought to be played, we are faced with more questions than answers. It’s this process of answering, for yourself, major questions that constitutes the development of a philosophy. I think this is true for any endeavor and is certainly true for coaches. We try things as we go along.

As coaches, we incorporate some of what we hear and see and experience into an approach to the game that satisfies us for the moment. Good coaches are always evaluating what they do and how they do it. This means that sometimes because of what we hear and see and experience we make changes in our approach. Ultimately we begin to see things more clearly. Our approach to the game affects and is affected by who we are as people. Over time we develop a philosophy of how the game should be played.

Is there a right way?

There are as many philosophical approaches to the game as there are coaches. It has been aptly demonstrated that there is no one right way to play the game and be successful. Every coach must be true to him or herself while developing ideas and answering internal questions about the way the game should be played.

As a young coach I realized that I couldn’t be Bobby Knight, or Ron Adams, or Pete Newell, or John Wooden, but I could learn from all of them. These four are very different in some respects and similar in others yet they have all been successful. They all could help me answer questions that I had regarding basketball but I would have to be me when all was said and done.

Be true to yourself

No matter who might have influenced my thinking about the game it would still be me trying to create a team from a random assortment of teenage boys. I would have to decide how we would go about winning games. We know that there are many ways to win. Some coaches prefer an up tempo full court style others prefer a slower half court game. Devotees of both styles have been winners.

The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent. In order to do that do you emphasize offense to try to outscore the opponent or do you emphasize defense to reduce your opponents opportunity to score? Answers to questions like these help you develop an approach to the game that fits you best.

Your philosophy may change over time for a variety of reasons but you will eventually find a comfort zone, a base from which you can judge new ideas and circumstances. Players will respond to what you ask them to do if they can see that you truly believe in what you are asking them to do.

My own journey

There were several coaches that influenced the development of my own philosophy. The three most important were John Wooden, Hall of Fame coach at UCLA, Bobby Knight, Hall of Fame coach at West Point, Indiana and now at Texas Tech, and Ron Adams, who when I first read his book, was an assistant at Fresno State. They were all very different but they had one thing in common, they believed in the value of pressure defense. John Wooden believed in full court pressure , Bob Knights teams rarely pressed full court, Ron Adams’ teams did both. Three different approaches but all were successful.

John Wooden’s UCLA teams were dominant for so long that you couldn’t be a basketball fan and not be impressed with the way he and his teams conducted themselves on the court. Wooden’s demeanor on the sidelines in pressure situations was truly amazing and set him apart from other coaches. Bobby Knight, for example is known as much for his tantrums as his tactics.

Coach Knight was the first coach I saw speak at a coaches clinic. His sense of humor, his passion for the game and his total commitment to playing the game in a certain way had a tremendous impact on me.

I finally had the opportunity to speak with Ron Adams when he was at Fresno State and read some of what he had written on man to man defense.

Through all these experiences some things were becoming clear to me. I wasn’t going to be John Wooden, Bobby Knight or Ron Adams but I could take something from each of them as I built my own model and developed my own philosophy about how the game should be played and what I needed to do as a coach to help bring this model to life.

I had to take into consideration where I was teaching and coaching. I was in a middle class suburb north of San Francisco. While the student population was a mixture of all socio-economic groups from the very poor to the very rich we were still a suburban school and a relatively small school as well with about 1000 students. What this meant to me was that we would often play against players who were bigger, more athletic, and maybe even tougher both mentally and physically. I wanted to employ a system that would allow us to not only compete with but ultimately beat teams that were more talented than we might be.

Recognizing what I can and can not do (learn to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t and be wise enough to know the difference)

The God given or genetic characteristics of players are elements beyond the ability of a coach to teach. You can’t teach a player to be 6’9” tall. And while you can affect or enhance a player’s jumping ability, quickness, eye hand coordination, balance, and agility generally these are attributes that come with the players that show up for practice. I can help teach a player the proper mechanics of shooting the basketball but I can’t teach my 5’7” guard to dunk the ball unless he has superior jumping ability which is something I have little control over. I can help a player to become stronger but that may not mean that he will become quicker. I chose not to worry about the things I had no control over.

My Decision

I decided that one thing that I could do was teach kids to become good defenders. This was something that I could control. On the other hand a team’s offense can be rather fickle. Some nights your shots just don‘t seem to fall. Always relying on offense to win games seemed to me to be risky. So in 1973 I began to think about and teach man to man defense in the belief that if I could do so effectively we might be able to overcome a lack of talent and win more than our share of games. Such a goal requires a certain mindset on the part of coaches and players alike. We all must believe that what we are about to do is possible. It is possible for us, undersized and less talented than our opponents to defeat them if we out work and out defend them. In order for us to do this we need ;1. to pressure the ball2. to deny the leads, especially the guard forward pass3. to protect the middle of the court by forcing to the sideline4. all 5 defenders to think of themselves as guarding the ball. If one defender gets beat we want other defenders in position to rotate and help. 5. all defenders to maintain good vision on the ball and the man they are guarding6. our defenders to maintain proper positioning on the floor in relation to the ball7. our defenders in a fundamentally sound stance given their position in relation to the ball and the man they are guarding8. our players as defenders to develop a willingness to be relentless in pursuit of excellence.

Twenty-nine years later

Looking back on the last twenty nine years has been rather satisfying. We accomplished many of the goals I set by establishing ourselves as a team that played tough man to man defense. Over the last 18 years we averaged over twenty wins a year, winning six league and five regional titles. Over that stretch we finished no lower than second, statistically, in team defense. Our players took great pride in playing good team defense. They also enjoyed the reputation of being tough, hard nosed, and unselfish defenders. It was an image long in the making but one that we took great pride in protecting.

Our opponents always knew going into a game that they would be defended. What follows is not necessarily new but is the compilation of 29 years of teaching and coaching basketball and specifically defense as I understand it and think it ought to be played. You may Purchase this book by clicking here.
Table of Contents

Philosophy 1
Stance 3
On ball 3
Defending the potential dribbler 8
On the dribbler 9
“Dead” 14
Denial 16
Helpside or weak side defender 19
Off ball defense and rotation 20
Closing out and/or defending the skip pass 23
Post Play 24
Low Post defense 24
Playing ? on the post 24
Fronting the post 26
Playing behind the post 28
Defending the high post 28
Defending Cutters 31
Defending the guard cut 31
Defending the weak side cut 33
Defending cutters using stationary screens 36
Defending Screens 38
Defending the Guard-Forward screen 38
Defending the post to post screen 43
Defending back screens 45
Defending on-ball screens 46
Alternatives 50
Drills for Defensive Basketball 52
Warm up drills 52
Defending the dribbler the length of the court 54
Defending in the half court 56
Denying middle penetration 56
Denying the Guard-Forward pass 58
Combination Drills 59
Rotation 68
Post Play 73
Defending cutters 79
Defending cutters using stationary screens 87
Defending screens 93
Glossary 116