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Defense in Small Pictures

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

I found a few really interesting ideas on how to build your defense while reading an Athletic article about Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Kelvin Sampson has completely transformed the Houston Cougars basketball program back into a national powerhouse. They have reached the Sweet Sixteen in back-to-back years and are a very popular Final Four pick in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Over the last few seasons, they have become an elite offensive rebounding, and defensive team. Right around this time last year I started watching more Houston film and actually put together a post of what they were doing on the offensive end of the floor. You can check out my post from last year on the Houston Cougars Offense which includes a diagrammed breakdown of their offensive actions.

Earlier this week I saw CJ Moore tweet out an article he wrote for the Athletic on Kelvin Sampson's defensive evolution and I was immediately intrigued. Having written about Houston last March I was familiar with Houston's physicality and defensive prowess. I know that these types of articles are not usually complete breakdowns but I was interested to see if there would be a few nuggets in the post that might be useful. As it turns out I found a few really interesting thoughts that I wanted to turn into a blog post.

I find myself discussing offensive tactics and philosophy far more often than I do defense, so this offseason I am going to make it a priority to do more writing and research on the defensive side of the ball. In this post, I'm going to dig into two really interesting quotes that I found in the article and how I thought they might apply to building your own defensive philosophy at the high school level.

Building Your Defense -

One of the things that always intrigues me about coaching is how people develop their own philosophies on the game. Typically it is some combination of what they have been taught by their own coaches, positive and negative experiences they have had as a coach, and exposure to new ideas from research and/or mentors they have sought out. In CJ Moore's article, he cites Kelvin Sampson's time in the NBA as the key factor in his own evolution on the defensive side of the ball.

One of the quotes from the article that I immediately gravitated to was about how Coach Sampson began to reevaluate his defensive philosophy after spending time in NBA coaching circles. During this time began to reevaluate how he would teach defense when he eventually returned to the college game. Although the article did not get into the minute details about how Coach Sampson ran his "shell drill" previously, you can get the sense that he would begin to ditch the traditional teaching of the shell drill in favor of one that emphasized actions.

Sampson came up with a system for how to guard every action.... from a ball screen, to a flare screen, to a pin down. "Instead of looking at everything in the big picture, I broke everything down in small pictures", he says. Sampson would scribble a plan into his notebook for every action and then take it to practice building his shell drill around actions instead of just teaching normal man-to-man defense and help principles.

This quote made me think about how to apply this to high school basketball. Let's say that we just revamp our typical shell drill and make it solely based on the actions that we will see most commonly. In the preseason we drill these actions relentlessly and then as the progresses we can tailor our actions to the opponent that is next up on the schedule. For the purpose of this post, I asked myself which actions would I include, and I came to the conclusion that we could cover almost everything breaking it down into three categories:

  • Core Actions (No Screens) - Dribble Drive, Post Entry, DHO, & Basket Cuts

  • Ball Screens - Middle Screen, Sideline Screen, Spain (Screen the Screener)

  • Off the Ball Screens - Down Screen, Flare Screen, Back Screen, & Flex Action

On Ball Screens -

The ball screen does play a much bigger role in the offenses at the College and NBA levels. However, it is a common enough strategy that we need to have a clear plan on how to guard these actions.

Middle Ball Screen:

There are lots of options to defend the middle ball screen. We could take a more aggressive approach by:

  • Hedging

  • or Blitzing/ Double Teaming

We could choose a more conservative approach by:

  • Going Under

  • Switching

  • or Employing a Drop Coverage

Sideline Ball Screen:

The side ball screen presents with a basic problem of deciding whether we want to force the ball baseline or middle. Sampson's teams employ the popular Ice concept where they force the rejection of the screen while the X5 awaits the drive in the paint. We could however use some of the same strategies as above by switching or even blitzing the action.

Spain Action:

Perhaps something like this is too specific for this post, but I have seen the use of a ball screen, and back screen combination enough to know that we should probably have a plan for how we will combat those scenarios. Even if teams only use this action as a set play on occasion it can lead to layups if our plan is not complete.

What to do with the "Off the Ball" Players?

One thing that I thought was interesting in the article was the approach that Sampson took with his three players not involved in the ball screen. Whether or not the screen was in the middle or on the wing those three players formed an aggressive zone with a player on the ball side and two players forming an "I" at the rim and the FT Line. We are once again left with the dilemma of choosing whether to be more aggressive and conservative in our approach to these players.

Off-Ball Screens -

If we are thinking of "smaller pictures" we should have a clear approach to how we want to combat off-the-ball screens as well. The general options in these scenarios are a bit more simple than the on-ball screening options. Typically we are left with a choice to either:

  • Fight Through & Stay with Our Man

  • Switch

Down Screens:

Probably the most common off-the-ball screen that you will see is the down screen. In these scenarios, the defender being screened does have the advantage of seeing the screen coming, but it also introduces the opportunities for screener second cuts when the defense makes its choice (pop, slip, etc.).

Back Screens:

Back Screens have the advantage of the defender not seeing the screen coming. Versus this type of screen we need to have a clear strategy so the screener's man can communicate behind the screen takes place.

Flare Screens:

Flare Screens are not as common at the high school level but can be a great way to get a shooter a clean look at the hoop. Similar to the back screen there is a "blind" element that exists for the defender who is being screened.

Flex Action:

Although Flex Action is seen less frequently today compared to when I first started coaching, it is still among the most common actions you will see throughout the high school season. Developing a strategy to defend the flex cut, down screen combination is still a necessary component of your philosophy.

Core Actions -

I labeled these as core actions because they are the actions that will occur most frequently. These are not necessarily set plays but simple actions that occur on nearly every possession. How we choose to defend these things must be almost instinctual to our players.

Dribble Drive:

Defending the dribble drive may be something that you choose to do in isolation rather than in a shell drill. However, if we do choose to incorporate it then we need to be clear about the technique that we want to be used on drives, and what we choose to do with the help of defenders.

  • Which angle to Force

  • Corner Help or No?

Basket Cuts:

Similar to the dribble drive this might be something that we do in isolation rather than in the shell drill. If we do choose to work on it here we could perhaps incorporate a pass-and-cut layer that limits dribbling and challenges our defenders to "jump to the ball" or deny any cuts to the rim.

Post Entry:


Dribble handoffs (DHOs) have become more and more common as the years go by. The handoff can be as effective as a ball screen if not guarded carefully. Similar to our ball screen defense, we can choose to be more aggressive or conservative in our guarding of this action.

Disruption -

The article went on to break down two of Coach Sampson's own disruptive tactics, the "Post Monster" and his Middle Pick & Roll "Line of Scrimmage" strategy. Both of the tactics were simple, but are executed with confidence & aggression by his players, and measured by the coaching staff. As I read it wasn't the tactics that caught my eye, but a quote from Coach Sampson that sort of confirms an idea I've always had about defense. The part I highlighted went like this:

Every defense has to have something that you disrupt with, he says. Some people do it with a full-court press. Some people do it by denying every pass. Some people pick you up full court and try to turn you three times. Just be disruptive. For us we have two things we try to disrupt with; our monster (post double) and our pick & roll defense. That's it. And if you're solid its amazing how many times the other team will make a mistake.

I've always thought that no matter which defensive tactics you choose to employ you should try to prevent the other team from executing the stuff they have been practicing all season. This doesn't mean that you have to use a full-court press or anything that is hyper-aggressive or risk-taking, but preferably something that makes their main action difficult to execute. the #1 option for the opposition.

Heading into the offseason perhaps a good question to ask yourself is what do you do that would qualify as disruptive?

  • Your Post Reactions?

  • Your Screen & Roll Defense Approach?

  • Your Full Court Pressure System?

  • Your Denial of Wing Passes?

  • or Perhaps a Zone that teams don't see often?

Concluding Thoughts -

I'm going to make it a priority to put together more defensive-focused posts this offseason as I assess my own tactics and research new ones. This was a great article to get my wheels turning as we end the season and start diving into the off-season. These two ideas that Coach Sampson introduces, "thinking in smaller pictures" and employing "disruptive tactics" are ones that I am going to take to heart and really think about how I can employ these moving forward.

I am especially intrigued by the idea of transforming how I teach defense by thinking about "small pictures". Instead of spending precious time drilling traditional help stances and movement, why not find a way to be more efficient and focus on the actions that we are going to have to defend during the season? Perhaps this approach will help us move the learning curve along at a quicker pace and also make the defensive segments of practice more competitive.

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