The Change Up:

Why a devoted man-to-man defensive coach switched to zone defense

–Shaun Busick, Zionsville High School, Zionsville, IN

My varsity coaching career has spanned over 25 years in the state of Indiana, and throughout most of my career I was a die-hard man-to-man defense advocate.  However, due to the changing landscape of basketball and the rise of ball screen continuity offenses, I made the switch to zone defense full-time in the Fall of 2012.  As a result, I am often asked, “What changed your mind and how is the change going?”  This article will attempt to answer those questions, plus give the reader insight into my philosophy moving forward. 

I have to start by saying that I had never planned on playing much zone until I saw that our lower-level program at Zionsville Community High School (Zionsville, Indiana) had some very big kids coming through the ranks, and my coaching staff and I weren’t interested in our opponents dragging our bigs outside and putting them into ball screen action.  Specifically, I had the son of former Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits (who was 7’4”) coming into the high school in the Fall of 2011.  Derrik Smits was 6’8” when he started his freshman year of high school in 2011, and he needed some seasoning on the JV before we would move him up to full-time varsity competition his sophomore year of high school.  This gave us time as a Program to start experimenting with zone defense.  With my “expertise” being M-M defense, I sought out Hall-of-Fame coach and match-up zone guru Basil Mawbey to teach me all he could about zone defense.  Coach Mawbey was not coaching at the time, and fortunately for our Program, Coach Mawbey’s daughter lived in Zionsville, so he spent some time in our town anyway.   

After connecting with Coach Mawbey (we had known each other for several years before), we decided that he would come and work with our team during the “summer season” of 2012.  We basically turned over the reins of our defense to Coach Mawbey that Summer, and as he ran the defensive portion of our Summer practices, my assistant coaches and I took pages and pages of notes.  We also asked a ton of questions throughout the process. At 52-years-old now, I would be lying to you if I told you that most of the stuff we do were things we came up with ourselves.  Our coaching staff and I want to be life-long learners.  Each of us reads a lot and studies a lot of film – of our team, our opponents and Programs we respect.   

Coach Mawbey accompanied us to our various Summer games and tournaments.  He became one of our assistant coaches and our “defensive coordinator”.  By this time, Smits was going into his sophomore year of high school and was penciled in to be our starting “5”.  He was now approaching 6’10” and had developed a great knack of protecting the rim by blocking shots and just being a “presence” in the paint with his great size.  He was also a great communicator on the floor, so he became the ideal player to man the middle of the zone.  Making this move also prevented opposing coaches to take Derrik to the perimeter in ball screen action.  He would stay in the paint defensively on EVERY possession, which is something we had set out to do in the first place. 

Initially, the change seemed very tough for our players and coaching staff, but we all stayed committed to becoming the best zone defensive team in the state.  This entailed at least 30 to 45-minutes of work on zone breakdown drills and actual game situations every practice.  (Note:  Our practices are usually around two hours in length, so you can see that this was a pretty big commitment.)  Starting two or three sophomores most the 2012-2013 season, we finished 11-10 with a young squad.  The 2013-2014 season saw some improvement with our team on the defensive end, as we finished 13-7.  Derrik’s senior season (2014-2015) became our “breakthrough” season, as we finished 19-7.  Had our starting point guard not gone down late in the season with an injury, we had a legitimate chance of winning the programs first Sectional since the Brad Stevens-led Eagles won the Lebanon Sectional back in 1995. 

After Derrik’s senior class graduated, our zone defense continued to evolve and improve. We didn’t have quite the size, but our overall defensive instincts and understanding of the zone improved.  By this time, Coach Mawbey had moved on and my staff and I felt much more comfortable teaching our ‘2” match-up.  We also added our “1” match-up which is more of a traditional 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone.   

The 2015-2016 season saw another 19-win season (19-6), and we made it to our first Sectional final but lost to the Mavericks of McCutcheon and future IU point guard Robert Phinisee.  That Mavericks squad went all the way to the State Finals and lost to Romeo Langford and New Albany by 3.  We won 18 the next season but lost again to the McCutcheon in the Sectional Championship.  Our breakout year came in the 2017-2018 season, when we won the first Sectional at Zionsville since 1995.  We went 22-4 and won the always loaded Hoosier Crossroads Conference for the third year in a row.  The ‘18-’19 season also saw more championships, as we went 21-6 and won our fourth straight conference title and our second of  back-to-back Sectional titles.  It should be mentioned that our post players during our run of championships, Hogan Orbaugh (6’9) and Gunnar Vannatta (6’10) were outstanding in the middle of the zone. Those teams were also led by current Purdue guard Isaiah Thompson, who was tremendous at the top of our zone. 

This past season after losing three D-I kids (Thompson – Purdue, Nathan Childres – walk-on at IU, and Orbaugh – a walk-on at Louisville), our team stepped up and went 16-10 against a top ten schedule in the state.  This included going 6-2 against teams in the IBCA Top 20 Final Poll.  Vannatta, now 6’11 and a senior, was the center of this year’s zone and did a great job.  Looking to the future, we have class of 2022 big man Isaiah Davis (6’8) and 2023 big man Nick Richart (6’8) ready to man the middle of our zone in the future.  Behind them, we have a 6’3 8th grader and a 6’4 7th grader who are beginning to learn the zone concepts we are now teaching throughout our Program.   

In conclusion, I am confident that my days of coaching M-M full-time are over. As opposing coaches would probably attest, preparing for our zone is not easy. Our players and coaches have fully bought-in and are committed to becoming the best zone team in the state. Finally, I leave you with this thought about zone defense…  If you and I were to sit down and talk offensive philosophy, I can assure you that you could speak for at least an hour on all the things your teams do against M-M.  However, once we turned the conversation to zone offense, I can almost assure you that you couldn’t give me more than fifteen-minutes’ worth…  Think about that. 

(Coach Busick can be reached for questions at sbusick@zcs.k12.in.us .  I would be glad to speak with you about what we specifically do with our match-up zone defenses.) 

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