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How to teach half-court basketball pattern offenses beginning at the elementary school level

High school coaches rarely have material  with the abilities that allow him to use the same offensive pattern, or style, every season. The most successful high school coaches that coach in the same school, year in and year out, are smart enough to convince coaches in their feeder system to concentrate on teaching these nine basic basketball plays to the youngsters they coach.

Not only is such a high school basketball coach making his job easier, but is helping the feeder coach be more proficient at his level of competition. It isn't a matter of fitting the personnel to the play, but choosing and fitting the play to the personnel. This is necessary because size, quickness, and other tangibles are hardly ever available every single season of a coaching career.

Despite of what you read in the above paragraph, facts tell us, winning combinations can be developed without the ideal personnel. If players coming from feeder schools are familiar with Basketball's "Nine fundamental plays" the high school coach, because he seldom has what can be called perfect material, can make minor changes to the offense that gives available personnel every opportunity to succeed.

Introduction to pattern play basketball

Ball HandlingPersonnelStationsNumberingCalling Plays
Play #4Play #84Play #184

The personnel required for pattern play cannot be classified into a single group. There are simply too many styles of pattern play in basketball to mention them all.

Teamwork and cooperation is necessary to play pattern basketball. There is no place in this style of play for the selfish player, because every effort is being made to get shots in the high-percentage area rather than jack the ball up once it crosses the ten-second line. Many times one more pass will break down the defense and lead to a better shot.

Good Ball handling

Necessary in any style of play, good ball handling is vital to the success of pattern play. Turnovers kill you; therefore, few mistakes can be afforded in passing, receiving, spacing, and dribbling.

The ball, as well as the players, must be moved. The more movement of ball and players, the better. Movement increases breakdowns in the opponent's defense.

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Pattern play basketball in high school, requires one big forward, either 6'5", or 6'6", with the other forward a little smaller. Both these forwards have to be able to rebound with the center, move out fast on the fast break, handle the ball, and shoot on the move.

The guard situation should include one good big, strong player, about 6'2", who can go to the board for rebounding. He needs good speed, and a threat beyond the three-point line. He is one of the main cogs in the sideline fast break that I will deal with, later. The other guard can be smaller. I still believe there is a place in modern-day basketball for the little man. The little man often gives the team something a big man is unable to contribute. He is in the lineup because he is a hustler. This often carries over to the rest of the squad. Better ball clubs have always had an outstanding little man.

In high school, the team with a 6'6" or 6'7" center can utilize the "Big Dog" sideline fast break to good success provided he can consistently get from one end of the floor to the other within 4 seconds. We want him to beat his opposing center down-court every time.

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This method can be used at any level of play. The elementary and secondary levels should definitely use the basic fundamentals discussed in in the Fundamental Nine basic plays. In analyzing the trends of today, I would still teach the fundamentals Coach McCutchan taught me 55 years ago and I would teach them everyday. Do it this way from the first day of practice:

  1. Assign all eight fundamental plays to definite positions, called stations, around appropriate areas of the gym.
  2. Assign assistant coaches and student assistants to each station to teach, instruct and supervise particular drills you select. Make certain the are practicing the correct execution and not practicing them wrong.
  3. Make it a rule that every player must be dressed and on the floor 30 minutes before each practice officially starts.
  4. Assign players to specific starting stations and make it a rule they be at that station 30 minutes before the beginning of every day of practice.
  5. At the sound of whistle all drills begin. Individual groups work on the following:
    1. One-on-One drills
    2. Give and Go drills
    3. Pick and Roll drills
    4. Pick Away (Backdoor and Flex Cut) drills
    5. Scissors Cut (First Cutter and Second Cutter) drills
    6. Cut-through (Deep Cut) drills
    7. Shallow Cut drills
    8. Guard-around drills
    9. Pick & Pop drills
  6. At the sound of whistle (every minute) one player leaves his drill and moves to the next. This continues for the entire 30 minutes.

The elementary and junior high coach can really benefit and use the above drills. In fact, they could even use each play as a different offense. Junior varsity programs can continue to develop these fundamentals leading right up to the varsity level.

In this article, and those that follow, I will deal with keys to identify and communicate a few types of offenses, allowing you the benefit of multiple offenses, so prevalent, today. It's a simple way of explaining different offensive patterns so that every player understands what is happening in the offense.

If you start analyzing today's offenses, you will always see the above eight fundamental plays popping up. Every offense I studied used at least one of these plays; therefore, it makes sense to adopt each one of them as your own.

My advice is to use them, but select the offensive alignment best suited to the players you have at your disposal. Reread the Fundamental Nine Basic Plays to refresh your memory. You may not always be blessed with that tall deceptive pivot player or that quick talented slick guard. Therefore, determine which plays are best suited to your talent and focus your teaching to those few, say five throughout the season.

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Numbering Multiple Play Offenses

In reality, the nine basic fundamental plays actually gives you eight different offenses you can run immediately at the beginning of a season. Simply run the play on one side of the floor and if you don't get a shot, reverse the ball, and run that same play on the other side of the floor. This is simple enough for first graders... after you teach them to balance the floor!

However, rather than run continuous pick and rolls or give and goes, it is preferred to run patterned offenses consisting of two or three of the fundamental eight basic plays.

Don't set your sights on one particular pattern, but give your team a multiple-patterned offense without complicating things. You must teach and practice these eight basic fundamental plays before introducing a 2 or 3 play patterned offense. No matter the level of play, proper execution is most important. That's the reason for using those drills as warm-ups to every practice session.

The nine basic fundamental plays are the basis of for this numbering system. For example, a 13 "one three" play would be a 1 "one-on-one play" followed by a 3 "pick and roll" play. In the heat of battle it is easier to say run a #13 than say, "Take your man one-on-one and if that doesn't get a high percentage shot, pass off and screen the receiver's defender and execute a pick and roll."

Obviously, the more digits involved, the more complicated the offense and takes much longer to explain using words. The options are usually set before the game, given at a timeout or signaled from the bench.

If you are going to run a multiple play, prearrange the second and/or third play options and only call the first number of the play during a game. For example, if you are running 3 as the second option of a #13 play, call out, or signal, "#1."

Here is where the ingenuity and individuality of coaching comes to play. The offensive options best suited for the varsity may not be the best suited for the reserve team; however, you are teaching the same eight basic fundamental plays; thus, implementing any changes becomes easy.

You should always emphasize scoring on the first option, stressing proper execution that usually will get a good shot. However, getting good shots will not always result in a score. A good defense often extends them in defending the first option, which often makes it easier to score on the second option.

Basketball play#43 - Diagram FP43

For example, say you are running a 43. Diagram FP43 on the left shows the #4 play with the defense sagging and switching. The 4 option is a pick opposite and difficult to execute because of the switching and sagging of defensive post defenders and guards.

Basketball play#43 - Diagram FP43a

In DiagramFP43a X1 and X2 have sagged so deep that 1 must pass out to 2. If 2 is a good shooter from where he receives the ball, he shoots. If not, or if X1 recovers before 2 gets his shot, then the defense has won the first battle.

The defense is now setup for the 3 option if 1 is a good shooter. Option 3, the pick and roll play is an excellent two-man play and should be executed properly as shown in this diagram. X2 and X5 must defend 1 and 5 on this pick and roll.

Other options might work as well in this situation. Scouting your opponent and game situations, among other things determine the appropriate options to use against a particular opponent. Coaching determines the options, but working every practice session on the eight basic fundamental plays prepares the players for quick adaptation to their use.

Since there are 64 possible play patterns using the two numbering systems, obviously, no team would use them all; however, it lends itself to a widely diversified offense. A set-play type team, in theory, could run a different two-option play every time down the floor and never repeat one during an entire game. I certainly don't advocate this because it would require an extremely intelligent team. One of the most talented basketball players I ever coached had trouble getting past two-option patterns. Yet, most could easily handle three-option patterns.

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Calling Plays

As in the old days, the point guard is still generally the floor general who calls the plays. He would signal a play in three ways:

  • orally
  • hand signals
  • position on the floor

Multiple Half-court offenses easily fit into either mode. Many teams huddle both offensively and defensively when a free throw occurs. This is an excellent time to change the offensive set or time to set up a pressing defense.

Games with huge crowds often drown out oral signals and hand signals sometimes become confused. Therefore, to use the multiple half-court offenses advocated here, a card system is recommended and all offensive changes called from the bench. A glance over at the bench tells the player what offense is being used. The advantages are many. Timeouts can be limited.

The card system is not essential, but certainly has proven to be a valuable communication tool. Simply teach your players to glance at the cards and not study them.

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Play #4 - Cincinnati Backdoor Trap

Pete Newell and his University of California Golden Bears first used this offense in the 1960 NCAA Tournament. St Louis University used a modification and Ohio State introduced it to the Big Ten during the 1961-62 season. Cincinnati's Coach Jucker's Backdoor Trap series had one purpose. That purpose was to give his big men at the forwards and pivot tremendous scoring power in close to the basket.

Actually. the way they ran their backdoor trap, it could be called a #4 single play continuity. They swung the backdoor pattern from side to side, running it from the left and right and right and left again without pause.

The distinctive feature of the basic pattern is this shuttle movement which alternates the two forwards and pivot players in their positions, one after the other. This keeps big men closer to the basket in their normal positions. It is designed to take advantages of defensive commitments and mistakes in close, where defensive mistakes are always fatal.

#4 Backdoor Trap Basic Pattern

The success of this play in Cincinnati's backdoor series depends on the success of Forward #4 setting up his man for a pick by the Pivot #5. Teach your players to walk their man back toward the Pivot before faking and cutting to the basket. Once the defensive man on #4 commits himself in response to the fake, the Forward breaks opposite that commitment. When the play runs perfectly, #4 is able to go baseline as illustrated the following diagram on the left.

Play #4 - Continuous backdoor trap - left side of floorPlay #4 - Continuous backdoor trap -right side of floor

The keying of the play is left to #1 who has the ball. If #1 passes to #3 and cuts around him to the baseline, the play is signaled. #4 must see #3 continue to the baseline before making his own move. Upon seeing this, #4 walks his man into #5, fakes up court then cuts shoulder to shoulder off #5 and take a quick pass under the basket from #3.

In the event #4's defender cannot be faked away from the baseline, #4 can elect to cut above #5 rather than baseline. You should always teach your players to react to the defensive moves and try to take advantage. No matter which direction the defender of #4 commits, he should be forced into a pick by #5, freeing #4.

Since no play can be run perfect every time, there is a possibility that #3 will not be able to make the feed pass into #4. In case of this happening, the players do not stop their movement, but continue in the positions shown in the next diagram. Study this diagram closely, if you wish to understand the flip-flopping motion of this continuous offense. Notice that #4 now occupies the pivot position on the opposite side while #3 becomes the strong Forward and #5 moves out to become the weak side Forward. #2 take the release pass from #3 and we are ready to run the same play from the other side. Meanwhile #1 is coming back outside, prepared to start the whole thing over again should the play miss the second time. It will take six complete shifts before all players are back in their original starting position.

Simple in operation, this continuous offense can be bewildering to the defense. I'll guarantee there will be a defensive mistake at some point during the cycle of six shifts. The aim of it all is to have one of your big men take advantages of that mistake.

You must emphasize that the guards, making the first pass, must cut all the way to the baseline. This prevents his defender from sagging on the feeder. You don't want the strong side clogged up by a sagging guard, especially if the situation calls for the Strong Side Forward to cut high instead of going baseline. For example, if #1 sees that #2's defender is sagging, then #1 should pass to #2 to bring that defender back out before the play begins. #2 should return the pass and the play continue as diagramed on the previous page.

I know from experience this basic play will score once or twice before the defenders sense what you are doing and a good team will adjust to stop any set pattern. Therefore, you need a few surprises and this pattern offers many. This pattern would be my choice of a total offense if I were coaching, today for the following reasons:

  1. It's simple with a great deal of player and ball movement.
  2. The shuffling of positions gives the appearance of a complex offense.
  3. There are a variety of quick options that most players I have seen enjoy running.

Sometimes, as the basic pattern flip-flops from side to side, the weak side guard will notice the defense is beginning to overplay to the outside. This happens when the defender on the weak-side guard begins to sense the movement of the play and concludes that his man always cuts outside the weak-side forward after passing. Against such an overplay, the weak-side guard passes to the forward as before, but cuts quickly down the middle executing the give and go (#2 Play) down the middle for a quick return pass and a lay-up.

On this option it is extremely important that the strong-side forward stay in his original position, foregoing his cut to the basket. Otherwise, there will be two offensive players cutting into the same spot at the same time. Make it a rule that the forwards are not to cut to the basket unless the weak-side guard goes outside the weak-side forward and continues to the baseline.

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Play #84 - Adding Guard-Around Options to Backdoor Offense

The backdoor offense pattern offers many different options. In modern basketball it is essential that all players be scoring threats. In the old days, the guards were essentially defensive men, but today do as much scoring as the forwards.

One of these variations would be the Adolph Rupp's old guard-around play options giving it the designated #84 which means a guard-around play followed by the flex cut. The following diagrams show you a couple of these options.

Guard-around diagram - option 1

Guard-around diagram - option 2

Although I shown a continuity offense using one and two plays, in reality most continuity offences used today are actually a combination of two and three plays run on opposite sides of the floor. Some are more complicated than others; therefore, I'm going to continue using the same backdoor trap offensive set using other plays from those selected basic eight fundamental plays that you should practice every day.

See Play #8 fundamentals for more play #8 options

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Play #184 Continuity

Basketball play #184 on left side of floor

Basketball play #184 on right side of floor

Play #184 on left side of floor

This play is mirror of the same three plays run on the right side of the court. Player #5 takes a pass from #2 in a triple threat stance and attacks the basket, in a penetrating move. Once #5 starts his dribble #2 cuts the outside corner looking for a return pass from #5 and a three point attempt.

When #4 sees #2 start his cut, he sets a hard screen on #3's defender. Using this screen, #3 cuts to the basket, either ready to rebound or receive a pass from #5 for a layup.

Thus #5 has four options as #3 did on the other side:

  • Penetrate and shoot.
  • Kick the ball out to #1 for a three point attempt.
  • Pass into #4 under the basket
  • Pass back outside to #2 and run the same three plays on the other side of the floor.

You can run this endlessly from one side of the floor to the other.

Play #184 on right side of floor

This play has three options. Player 3 takes a pass from #1 in a triple threat stance and attacks the basket, in a penetrating move. Once 3 starts his dribble #1 cuts the outside corner looking for a return pass from #3 and a three point attempt.

When #5 sees #1 start his cut, he sets a hard screen on #4's defender. Using this screen, #4 cuts to the basket, either ready to rebound or receive a pass from #3 for a layup.

Thus #3 has four options:

  • Penetrate and shoot.
  • Kick the ball out to #1 for a three point attempt.
  • Pass into #4 under the basket
  • Pass back outside to #2 and run the same three plays on the other side of the floor.

3 play continuities like this are prearranged at game time and would be called play #1

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To be continued....

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