The difference between man and zone is less than it’s perceived to be.

Good man-to-man defense prides itself on help, and help is essentially zone—or at least momentarily occupying a space, in relation to the ball and someone *else’s* man.

Man teams that suffocate pick-and-rolls by trapping the ball?  Their other three defenders are zoning the remaining four offensive players.

I can’t begin to understand why coaches who deploy a defense that switches every screen find themselves still classified as man-to-man guys. Why don’t they have to wear the scarlet Z across their chest?

The staple of “pack” man-to-man defense (Virginia!)  is that four players—all but the one on the ball—are in help, and not out on the perimeter denying passing lanes.  Instead, they are clogging gaps (and paint) inside an invisible 16-foot arc.  Aren’t those similar locations to four zone defenders that aren’t on the ball?

Testosterone may play the biggest role in the effort to segregate man from zone.  Unfortunately for zone’s sake, your first exposure to it is in a grade school gym versus an offense that can hardly muster the strength to hoist the ball to a 10-foot rim. (It’s our biggest disservice to the game that we teach it to 3rd graders on the same size baskets that Dwight Howard uses.)

But that’s not what Syracuse does, nor why they do it.  Over their last 12 years in the old Big East,  Syracuse averaged a ranking of 4th among the conference’s 12-16 teams in Defensive 3FG%.  Three times, they led the entire conference.

For many, the suggestion that zone may be more effective than man at defending the 3-point line is lunacy–since their 5th grade zone positioned its defenders well inside the arc.  Try watching all that Kyle Korver’s man defenders have to navigate during a set play.

Syracuse sees value in having their biggest defender between the ball and basket–you know, that orange thing through which points are scored. It provides one last (and large) obstacle for the hardest thing to defend:  dribble penetration. Does your bank position its armed security guard closer to the cash, or the parking lot?

Syracuse sees value in keeping their quicker guards on the perimeter, where they’re in position to attack the offense’s facilitators.  An effective junkyard dog roams the fence line, not the junk.

This is in stark contrast to a man team who will allow their big to be pulled 25 feet from the rim to defend a ball screen, which leaves…not him…to protect the basket.  The pesky guard who gets his hands on a lot of passes or dribbles—I hope he can defend isolations in the post if you’re committing to man-to-man.

But as coaches (males?) we often like to be the aggressor, even if the situation doesn’t call for it.  We want to be on the attack, and dictate—a figurative pounding of the chest.

How much of this can be attributed to the name of the defense:  man-to-man? What does it say about any card carrying alpha male who chooses not to play it? Imagine if, instead, it had always been called “go where the other guy takes you”?

Coaches should defend in a manner that will help them beat teams better than them.  But the tendency is to defend in ways to beat lesser teams by the biggest possible margin.

Good offense beats good defense—and if it doesn’t, the rules of the sport will be altered for such. Handchecking and bumping cutters have been governed against, not encouraged. Press coverage on wide receivers?–hands off after 5 yards. There’s even talk about banning defensive shifts in baseball.  There wouldn’t be, if it didn’t work.

When Bob Gibson sported a 1.12 ERA in 1968, they didn’t raise the mound—they lowered it.

Offense and scoring will endure.  Fans want it. Television advertisers want it.

The NBA does not allow true zone defense.  Would that be the case if it were inferior to man at stopping offense?

Ask Bob Gibson.

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