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131 Zone Offense

A good 131 Zone defense can be one of the most difficult strategies for coaches to deal with. Having a go-to alignment and clear in-game adjustments are a must to combat this approach.

The 131 Zone Defense can be one of the most difficult defenses to play against. With good length and anticipation, this strategy can break the momentum of an offense and result in valuable deflections and steals. Perhaps its biggest strength is that it is not something you will see more than 1-2 times per season. It now becomes a special scout for your opponent and in most cases only gives them 1-2 days to prepare for defense. Like all defenses, there are clear tradeoffs with the 131, but if your team can make it a primary focus it has the potential to be a difference-maker.

The focus of this post will be on how I typically like to attack the 131 defenses that I see. Like most of the concepts to try to use I want them to be simple and easy for players to flow into. The majority of what we would work on in practice is the gap alignment, ball and player movement, and then a few adjustments we can make in-game. I am going to go over a few set actions that can be used versus the 131, but in reality, they are only going to be used a few times per game. The majority of the time players will have to flow into our spacing from transition and then look to attack the gaps of the defense.

Post Design:

  • I. Alignment & Gaps

  • II. Ball & Player Movement

  • III. Sets & Actions

  • IV. Adjustments

  • V. Wrap Up

If you are interested in running this style of defense or are interested in what the 131 is trying to do on the defensive end, check out the 131 Defense post on my site.

Alignment & Gaps -

My general approach to zone offense, regardless of which type of zone is being used, is to get players into the gaps and attempt to create 2/1 scenarios. We are attempting to get perimeter ball movement for open shots or entry passes into our interior players. Now I do think that good 131 defenses present a challenge to ball movement that most other zone defenses do not. So in our preparation, we need to be more vigilant about players readjusting their gap positioning to make sure that there are passing lanes to the interior of the defense.

Gaps Alignment -

Our default gap alignment versus a 131 defense is a two-guard front with the corners filled and a floating middleman.

Because of the disruptive nature of the top player, I generally want our two top players positioned closer to the lane lanes.

The Corners:

When the ball is in the slot we want our two corner players to be behind the three-point line, positioned at about rim depth. As the position plays out though we want to encourage these players to be creative.

  • Sneak along the baseline

  • Flash to the block to catch a diagonal

  • Make a back door cut when the middle touches, etc.

It's important for our corner players to not just sit in those corners for the entire possession.

"Floating" Middle Man:

It is also very important that our middle man be skilled at finding gaps in the middle of the defense. One of the best ways to create open shots against the 131 is to get those middle touches from the 5. We want him strategically finding gaps and do not want him hiding "behind" the X5, or constantly following the flight of the ball.

Great Question about using Gaps -

This was a good point brought up in a recent Twitter discussion on offense vs the 131. Essentially, the question was challenging whether a 212 alignment is feeding into what a 131 wants.


I always find these questions tough to answer on Twitter because there is usually quite a bit of context that goes with them.

I had some thoughts I wanted to add to that conversation here:

  • Zone Defenses really force teams into gap-style approaches. Which is ok! We just need to teach players how to exploit the weaknesses of those zones.

  • Adjustments - I do think there are slight adjustments you can make to exploit what 131 defenses are trying to do; tightening up the slot spacing, adjusting the middle man, getting your corner players to move, etc.

  • Advantages - 2/1 on the ball side gives you 2/1 on the backside. The 131 is always giving you 2 on the ball, so we should be positioning ourselves to maximize our scoring chances on the backside. In my mind gap spacing is the best way to do that, even if it allows your players to be "gapped" on the ball side.

Ball & Player Movement -

The majoirty of scores we are going to get against the 131 Zone are going to come with simple ball and player movement. In this 212 alignment we want players to know how they can adjust their spacing when the ball is passed to the slot, corner, and middle. We want to hunt for the things that the 131 Zone does not want to see happen; quick swings, touches to the middle, and diagonal scoring passes.

Ball/Player Movement -

Regardless of where the ball is we want to provide some basic options with our spacing;

  • An Outlet

  • Diagonal Skip Pass

  • An Inside Touch Player

Ball in Slot:

The ball will spend more time in the slot than anywhere else. When it is in this position;

  • Other Slot is Outlet

  • Opposite Corner is Diagonal

  • Middle Man slips to the opposite elbow for an inside touch

When the ball is passed from one slot to the other we simply rotate our responsibilities. The the passer becomes teh outlet, the middle man slips to the open elbow, and the corner players flip their roles.

Ball in Corner:

Passing the ball to the corner is a risk/reward versus the 131. A slot to corner pass can present good catch and shoot opportunities, but it can also present good trapping opportunities for the defense. In these scenarios we wants;

  • Ballside Slot is the Outlet

  • Opposite Slot is the Diagonal

  • Middle Man slides to the post, and the opposite corner sneaks along the baseline.

Middle Touch:

One of the negative things about a 212 alignment is that you don't have a player initially positioned at the rim in case a middle touch is acheived. Because of this we need to train our corner players to time cuts to the rim when the middle man touches the ball. I am a fan of letting "cutters cut, and shooters shoot". Essentially allowing our good shooters to spot up in the corner, but encouraging poor shooters to make hard cuts to the rim on thes middle touches.

Middle Man Option -

One decision I wanted to comment on is the placement of the middle man in our gap spacing.

You have two choices with the middle man:

  • Follow the Ball

  • Go to Opposite Elbow

Ball Side Positioning:

The traditional approach, at least the way I was taught, was to put the middle man directly into the path of the ball.

Over the years I have found two problems with that appraoch; 1) it prevents any dribble drive penetration from the slot by simply being in the way, and 2) it makes the diagonal pass difficult to see with the X5 & middle man in his line of vision. Coaches may disagree with those critiques but they have led me to take a different appraoch with our middle man.

Opposite Elbow Positioning:

My personal preference is to place him on the opposite elbow from the ball. I think this positioning helps with the previously mentioned critques and also gives us some additional scoring options on the backside. This positoning allows for:

  • Immediate 2/1 on the backside

  • Ability to set Back Screen on Top Player

  • Driving Lane on the touch

  • Good High/Low passing angle to a Cutter

Sets & Actions -

In scenarios where our players are struggling to find open shots I may choose to go to a set action to give the defense something different to deal with. College coaches probably have 3-4 different "zone specific" sets they like to use. As a high school coach I need to have a much simplier approach to this problem. I like to have 1-2 sets that can be effective against both zone and man defense. Both of the actions we will dive into fit into that category.

Set Actions:

  • 21 Series

  • Pop Action

Pop Action vs 131 -

One of my favorite zone actions is called Pop Action. I believe it can create advantages against any defemse, but it is especially usefull against odd fronted zones that are weaker in the corners.

I'm also a fan of this action because of how easy it fits with the 212 alignment.

Entry & Pop Out:

The set starts with a simple slot to wing entry followed by a cut to the short corner. Given the positioning of the wings and top player this can be tricky so players really need to come to the basketball. On the backside we are asking our corner and slot players to exchange positions. Once the wing entry is made the center now pops out to the slot to receive a pass. Versus the 131 the center needs to be aggressive in cutting towards the ball and catching it cleanly.

Baseline Pin Screen:

The next element of the set is getting the ball to the backside. The center has to now make the slot to slot pass, which in turn trigger the baseline pin screen. The teaching point for the cutter is to wait for the slot to slot pass to be made before cutting off the baseline pin screen.


Ideally we are able to make a swing pass to the corner for a clean three point shot, but versus the 131 we are really reading the baseline defender. If he gets caught in the screen we hit the corner, if he gets through hit the screener.

21 Series vs 131 -

The second action we'll discuss is 21 Series.

Over the years we have found success with this concept against both 131 and 23 zones.

Like out normal zone offense we are hoping to draw two the ball is hopes of exploiting the backside. In a similar fashion to Pop Action we are using screening as a ways to disrupt normal zone rotations.

Keep or Give Options:

21 Action begins with a slot to wing entry, which is followed by a cut over the top of the ball. MY big teaching point on the entry is to make sure that the pass is not made too clase to the sideline. Once this pass is made we have two options; Keep or Give.

  • Ideally, we want to give the ball back to the original passer.

  • If that option is taken away we simply keep it.

Trail Ball Screen:

Whether we decide to keep or give the ball our trailer is running straight into a wing ball screen. This screen against 131 Zones will be set on the wing defender. The diagram above is drawn out for the give option, this is our preferred option because it gives is the drive and kick to the point, backside corner, and drop options to the big. Coming off of the wing ball screen I want the ball to be thinking:

  • Shot 1st

  • Drive & Kick to the backside 2nd

  • Drop the 5 Man 3rd

With both of thes actions we are looking to create an advantage that we can turn into a good shot. If the action does not create that shot we are simply flowing into our normal spacing and looking for the typical gap opportunities.

Adjustments -

In this section we are not talking about set plays, but just simple adjustment that we can make if things are going the way we want them to go. We'll get into what might prompt me to make these adjustments, and what advantage we are trying to create with the change.

Possible Adjustments:

  • High/Low Alignment

  • Matching the 131

  • Horns Entry

High/Low Alignment -

One simple adjustment you can make to your 212 Alignment is to place one of the corner players and position them on the low block. This now gives us a two man front, a middle man, a corner player, and the low block. This is an adjustment I make fairly often as a way to get more pressure on the rim and increase our offensive rebounding opportunities. As the ball is moved slot to slot we are looking to put pressure on the baseline defender by making him guard the corner and low block.

Matching the 131 -

On occasions where I have good post players available I like the idea of going to a 'match' alignment. We are essentially going to ditch our "gaps" approach and simply match their spacing.

Once we are in this 131 alignment our focus is on entering the ball to either post and letting our bigs do their thing.

Post Mismatch:

What might compel me to make this change is the inability to get inside touches to our bigs. In most 131 defenses there is a guard defending on the baseline and if we can getone of our post players on that matchup it is in our best interests.

Perimeter Swing:

Once we are able to swing the ball our two inside players will conduct high/low movement as a way to once aghain exploit the low post defense of the baseline player. For teams whose strength lies on the inside this may be the best approach to eiminate the effectiveness of the top player and rely on the skills of your stronger players.

Horns Start -

One approach that I have used on occasion is to enter the ball to the elbows instead of the typical slot to slot pass. I have seen coaches use a Four Across formation to do this, but I prefer a Horns Alignment as way to enter the ball.

Bycentering the ball to the elbow we are collapsing the defense and opening up a chance for a high/low pass or a kickout to a corner shooter.

Entry & High/Low:

For the players at the elbows there is a high/low response to the entry pass. Whichever player does not receive the entry pass should immediately dive towards the rim. If the X5 guards the ball, as is typical, the diving player has the opportunity for a post up vs the smaller baseline player. The three perimeter player should be positioning themselves for a kickout pass in case that high/low opportunity does not emerge.

Concluding Thoughts -

I prefer to rely on a gaps approach as my main strategy to combat 131 Zones. We are simply putting them in position where they can create advantages with intelligent interior and skip passes. There is so much in the game that coaches can not control that it only makes sense to teach our players the best positioning and adjustments to make in order to take advantages of the defensive strategy. With that being said I do want to have a set play or key adjustment that I can make if the players are struggling with the unique aqualities of the 131.

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