Going through some notebook archives and came across an open practice at the University of Tennessee during the time Donnie Tyndall became the head coach.

Despite the issues within the program, Coach Tyndall put together a clinic on zone defense. And during my time in Memphis at Christian Brothers University, our staff had the opportunity to observe a couple of practices. These were the notes we were able to take away with a little bit of film to follow from his Southern Miss days.

Four Major Keys
  1. Take Away Opponent Offensive Strengths
  2. One to the Ball / Tag Any Switches
  3. Deter Ball Reversals & Straight Line Passes
  4. Don’t Overreact to Innocuous Offense

It really was an amoeba matchup zone. From conversations with a couple of the assistants after practice they mentioned how the type of zone may vary from game-to-game based on matchup but the principles stayed the same. At times it would be structured in a traditional 2-3, or stagger the top guards giving the impression of a 1-3-1 or 1-1-3.

One thing they tried to keep consistent was pairing positions – odds (X1 and X3) and evens (X2 and X4) on their respective sides of the floor. This was an attempt for them to stay consistent defensively, almost territorial splitting the floor in half.

Despite the structure, once the offense was initiated by pass or push from the primary ballhandler the defense would reveal it’s intent to execute. Let’s take a look at a few different clips defending common counters to zone defense.

Ballscreen & Overload

Good zone offense intends to create overload situations attempting to play small-sided 4v3 or 3v2 to create advantages. Ballscreens are a great way to create those advantage situations with shooters surrounding the perimeter forcing defenders to make a decision to guard the ball or stunt to freeze the ball. Southern Miss under Tyndall’s defense understood this concept in a variety of ways.

To mitigate overload disadvantages defensively Southern Miss would try to freeze the ballhandler by stunting off-the-ball and retreat, keeping the same defender guarding the ball all the way through the screen. The example above gives a small compilation of how they were able to fight through the screens, stunt at the ball-handler to freeze him, and allow the rest of the protection to stay matched up.

If a switch did occur, the backside defender knew that there was an overload situation with an additional shooter in the corner. Southern Miss look to stop any one-more passes by putting their foot on the sideline and being as active as possible discouraging any quick ball movement for clean looks. The clip above shows a switch from the initial ballscreen with the backside protection splitting the two offensive players and taking away a quick sideline pass for a shot in the corner. Also worth noting, the number of tags the defenders make. Not by presumption that someone else will take the unoccupied offensive player, but by physically tagging them off to the next defender.

Keep the Middle 1v1 

From our observation from practice, initial impression was how the middle of the zone seemed so vulnerable. Come to find out after discussions with the staff it was based on instruction to leave the middle of the paint to the top of the key relatively inviting. The motive being that more often than not, an opponent has to put their “bigs” somewhere in the offense, typically taking up the short corner to the high post real estate. How often are bigs comfortable making a catch in rhythm around 10 feet from the rim to make a scoring move – shot or attack? This is where the rim-protecting defenders tend to clog the lanes discouraging straight line-drive attempts and leave the high post open daring opposing bigs to make a play. Tyndall’s staff taught “one-thousand-and-two” counts to defenders before applying pressure on the ball. This was twofold in instruction: (1) it invited offensive players in-decision and (2) coaches knew defenders would be impatient, so “one-thousand-and-two” was to emphasize not go right away.

Don’t Overreact / Don’t Lose Sight of Shooters 

Whether this coaching strategy was driven by analytics or experience, inside-out threes can be lethal. And it seemed to be a point of emphasis within their principles to not lose sight of potential shooters. This complemented the principle of not overreacting to the ball going in the middle. If personnel dictated more pressure on playmaking athletes flashing the high-post adjustments may have been made, but during the 2012-13 season, Tyndall’s defensive 3FG% was at 32% for a reason.


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