Zone Offense | 8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense by Wes Kosel

Written by Wes Kosel

Wes Kosel will enter his first season as an Assistant Coach at Augustana University under Tom Billeter in 2016-2017. Kosel came to Sioux Falls after two season at Colorado College as the lead assistant. Kosel, a native of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, served as an assistant coach at Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference rival Texas Lutheran University from 2012-2014. Kosel graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. He also has a master’s degree in physical education from the University of Houston. While attending Kansas, Kosel served as an assistant coach at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. A life-long student of the game, Kosel honed his coaching skills by working summer camps for various programs in Texas, Colorado, Missouri, and New Mexico. Kosel also is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a Certified Personal Trainer, both of which are certifications earned through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Kosel and his wife, Molly, live in Colorado Springs.

April 14, 2016

Zone Offense | 8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

In the 2016 NCAA Tournament, we saw a lot of teams playing 2-3 zones, 1-3-1 zones, or a mixture of zone and man defense. In my time at Division III, 2-3 is the most common zone I have coached against and since we play a 2-3 zone defense at Colorado College I have seen a ton of good zone quick hitters used by opposing coaches. The most famous 2-3 defense is Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange version, but there are multiple ways that zone defenses can be played. For example, some coaches prefer to close-out with the bottom zone defenders on the “low side” or baseline side while others prefer a “high side” close-out. Some coaches like to have the middle zone defender, usually the center, play high in the 2-3 zone defense and guard the high post flashers and cutters. Other coaches prefer to keep the middle zone defender low to guard the blocks while the two guards up top guard against the high post players. Coaches also have different rules on “bumping” wings or guards when there is an overload. All of these differences make a difference in choosing an offensive attack to beat the zone. In this article, we will look at 8 different ways to attack a zone defense (mostly 2-3 zones).

1. Using Runners   |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Using a runner is one of the most common ways that teams attack a 2-3 defense. Often, a runner can create an overload or a numbers advantage for the offense leaving a shot open in the corner. Using a runner also allows you to work behind the zone defense. If the zone defenders lose track of the runner, he may be open for a shot or lob pass.

VCU Rams – Zone Drag Runner

VCU runs 2 behind the screen from left to right and pull 5 out to create an overload on the right side. As the ball is reversed back to the right, x4 has to choose whether to guard 1 or 2.

8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

USC Trojans – Zone Runner

In this play by USC, the Trojans use a runner through the middle of the defense pulling the defenders to the left side of the floor. As the ball is reversed, 1 is left in the right corner for a shot.


2. Stack Your Post Players  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Stacking your post players is a very effective way to attack 2-3 zones. For one, the middle and bottom zone defenders have to account for 2 players in the same spot, which it is not always clear who should guard which player. Running zone post stacks usually opens up a pass inside for a mid range shot or layup.

Kansas Jayhawks – Zone Post Hook

Kansas uses this play to get Perry Ellis the ball inside. The top post player screens in on the center zone defender leaving an opening for 4 at the mid post.


NCAA D3 – Zone Stack

This play is very similar to the Kansas play, but it switches who screens in the post stack. This play uses a runner, overload, and post stack combo to get the ball into the high post. x4 has to decide whether to guard the shooter in the corner or collapse on the post stack.

3. Use Ball-Screens  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Ball screens in a zone can put pressure on the defense. If screening a top zone defender, the guard has to decide whether to go over the top, go under, or switch off to another player. Regardless, zone ball screen defense is often overlooked.

Michigan Wolverines – SLOB Zone Chicago

Michigan uses a dribble handoff/ball screen combo against the zone here to create an overload on the right side.

zone defense

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks – Zone Ball Screen

This simple action uses a ball screen in the slot with the opposite big looking to get position on the center zone defender.


4. Work Behind the Zone with Lobs  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Lobs are a great way to beat a zone if you have the athletes for it. Often, a zone runner can sneak behind the zone defenders leaving space for an alley-oop.

Kansas Jayhawks – Zone Lob

In this play, Kansas pushes 3 to the corner then swings the ball from right to left. The post players screen the back of the zone for a lob to 3.


Kansas Jayhawks – Zone Baseline Lob

In this play, the post players cross to screen the back of the zone. If the lob isn’t there, 3 cuts off of 5 for a shot in the corner.


5. Get the Ball to the High Post  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Another great way to beat zone defenses is to get the ball to the high post. As mentioned before, coaches have to decide how to guard high post entries (whether it is the center zone defender or the guards up top).


North Carolina Tarheels – UNC Zone Post Entry

UNC uses a 1-4 high set and throws the ball into the high post. Once 4 has it, 5 and 2 dive. This play works against a 1-3-1 or 2-3 zone.


North Carolina Tarheels – UNC Zone Dribble

6. Set Flare Screens for 3-Point Shots  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Flare screens against a zone can create open shots for your team, especially when setting flares against the bottom zone defenders.

Kansas Jayhawks – Zone Corner Flare

This bigs for Kansas set great screens, and in this play they screen for an open shot in the corner.


Texas Lutheran Bulldogs – Zone 1-4 High Drag Flare

This play works great against 2-3 zones as it draws the defenders out and leaves a 2 on 1 situation on the wing (1 player getting screened in by 4).


7. Use Your Man Sets (Horns) Against the Zone  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Many teams are now using man sets to beat zone defenses. This can work with certain formations and especially when using ball screens. A trend we have seen is the use of horns set plays against zones, putting pressure on the top two zone defenders.

Yale Bulldogs – Zone Horns Twist

Yale uses this horns set to set multiple screens against the top of the zone.


Georgia State Panthers – Zone Horns Stagger

This horns set uses a combination of ball screens and runners to get the ball to the corner or inside to the post.


8. Create an Overload  |  8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

Overloads may be the best way to beat a zone as it forces the the zone defenders to choose whether to guard the wing or the corner.

Texas Longhorns – Zone Overload

Texas overloads the zone forcing x4 to guard the wing. When this happens, a shot is open for 3 in the corner.


Fairleigh Dickinson Knights – Zone Overload Ball-Screen

A very common theme I have seen is screening on the weak side as an overload is formed on the opposite side. This action forces players to guard the ball screen but then recover into an overload situation.


Click here to download the PDF! 8 Ways to beat a Zone Defense

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