The Combination Man to Man Zone: A Man Defense Dressed Up as a Zone

Man to Man Defense
Man to Man Defense. Mark Nolan / Stringer / Getty Images

The Combination Man to Man Defense dates back to the 1960's. It was invented by Joe Mullaney, a legendary coach for Providence College and the Los Angeles Lakers. Mullaney was a basketball visionary who was years ahead of his time when he invented this defense.

Supposedly he drew it up on a box of matches while scouting a game. This defense was very difficult to identify and more difficult to play against. By today's standards, it can still be dangerous to play against, but it is not all that complicated to execute. Thus, It can be a major weapon in your defensive arsenal.

A Man Defense Dressed Up as a Straight Zone

First of all, it is not really a "Match Up" zone. instead, it is a man to man defense with some zone principles that is purposefully designed to look like a traditional zone. The defense's purpose is to camouflage itself as a regular zone so that the opposition will run its zone offense against it, and in turn make mistakes. 

In an execution example, the offense runs a zone with overloads, rotations, and some screens for jump shooters. There is not much offensive movement involved. Meanwhile, you are really in a man defense. All of your players have a man to play in their area that matches up perfectly with the zone offense. As the ball moves around the perimeter, all your players are matched with a man. The trick is that they are disguised as a zone. They are waving their hands in a zone posture, making zone calls, and in a zone stance. It is a perfect defense if your opponent continues to run a zone offense against it. You just have to keep them fooled and disguise your defense. As a result, the offense will be confused, potentially turning the ball over or taking a poor shot as a result. 

How Does This Work?

The Man-Zone defense is not very complicated. The combination starts out as a 1-3-1- zone with everyone waving their hands and sliding toward the ball. Most coaches attack a 1-3-1 zone with a with a 2-1-2 offense or 1-2-2-offense. Your defensive point guard plays in the area of their point guard with the ball. Everyone else matches up with the players in their zone. Usually, the second guard matched up with the offense's second guard and everyone matches up as well.

The defenders still wave their hands and look like they are in a zone, but really are playing a man in their area. As the ball is passed around the defense, everyone stays with their man and slides with the ball. Therefore, if the opponent attacks your 1-3-1 with a 2-1-2-offense, it looks like you are defending with a 2-1-2 zone. If you are attacked with a 1-2-2 offense, it looks like you are in a 1-2-2- zone defense. You are matched up perfectly.

What Are the Principles?

The principles of the defense are rather simple and uncomplicated: 

  • Match up with the player in your zone and wave your hands; don't show a man stance
  • If your man cuts, stay with him/her until someone can pick him/her up and then trade off.
  • At that point, yell "Cutter" and trade up to whoever is in your zone. That way your defense is always aligned with the offense and can slide with the perimeter ball movement.

If a team starts running a man offense, slide into a straight man defense. You could also occasionally play a straight 1-3-1 zone for a few times to perpetuate the zone impression. Then you could go back to the Combination. If a team ran a zone offense with many cutters, you might stay straight zone. The Combination doesn't do well with a lot of player movement because it requires too many trade-offs between defenders.

Scouting reports on team zone offenses make the Combination easier to utilize. You can diagram the opponent's zone offense and how you can match up out of your Combination during practice. You can also walk through their cuts and offensive sets.