1-3-1 Zone Defense

The 1-3-1 zone defense has gained popularity with basketball coaches over the past few years.  Recent success from coaches such as the University of Michigan's John Beilein has played a major role in the resurgence of the 1-3-1 zone.  In this article I'll discuss Coach Beilein's philosophies of the 1-3-1 and show you the rotations along with providing some helpful tips on teaching the defense to your basketball team.  One quick note I need to make is that Beilein also likes to use a 1-3-1 match-up zone and although I cover the match-up briefly at the end of this article I didn't get into it as much as I had planned.  The 1-3-1 match-up will be explained better in the soon to be released animation of Michigan's defense. 

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Coach Beilein's 1-3-1 Philosophy

Michigan defeated UCLA earlier this season when the Bruins were the 4th ranked team in the nation.  After the game UCLA Coach Ben Howland said  "We didn't do a good job of attacking that zone, Michigan does a good job of making you guess. Sometimes they're playing you aggressively and sometimes they're backing off of you … it's just a hard zone."  Coach Beilein's team at times uses an aggressive style of the 1-3-1 defense and other times uses a more conservative approach, he accomplishes this by using different defensive rotations and by switching to a match-up 1-3-1.  This philosophy of mixing-up their style during a game both confuses and frustrates opponets, which leads to turnovers.

Key Points

The key points I'll attempt to make in this article:

  • Beilein's philosophies in Regards to Mixing-Up an Aggressive & Conservative style
  • Teach the Basic Set-Up and Rotations of The 1-3-1 Zone Defense
  • Show the 1-3-1 Trapping Hot-Spots
  • Show How You Can Use Different Rotations and a 1-3-1 Match-Up  to Switch
  • Between an Aggressive Style or A Conservative One
  • Show a Few Different Offensive Formation You Need to Prepare For
  • Briefly Describe How To Deal With Cutters
  • Show Animation of the 1-3-1 Defense

The 1-3-1 Zone Defense Set-Up

As you can see from the diagram the set-up of the 1-3-1 zone is simply 1 player out front, 3 players across and 1 player on the baseline under the basket.  The baseline player (4) needs to be athletic because he/she will have to cover both corners and also help rebound.  The middle player (5) should probably be your post player or slowest player becaue this position covers less space and will be guarding opponents near the lane area. 









1-3-1 Trapping Hot-Spots

Michigan's aggressive 1-3-1 defense is used to trap the basketball.  Trapping is useful to both force turnovers and also apply constant pressure on the offense.  If you've read my article on full-court press break concepts then you know I like to use the phrase "trapping hot-spots" to describe the best areas on the floor to set a trap.  The diagram on the left shows the areas Coach Beilein likes to use when setting traps in his 1-3-1 defense.

The red lines in the diagram show the basic rotations used by Michigan's basketball team (More on Rotations Later).  Notice the wing players (2 & 3) will help set traps in the wing area and also the corners.  As mentioned above the baseline player (4) is responsible for covering both corners, therefore, he helps trap the basketball when it's in either corner. 






Basic Rotations in 1-3-1 Defense

The following diagrams will show the basic rotations and give different scenarios you're team will face while using the 1-3-1 zone defense.  I'll also discuss Beilein's philosophy in more detail to show how he sometimes uses an aggressive gambling style while at other times his teams will employ a more conservative approach.

This diagram shows a front-court trap by 1 and 3.  Player 4 sprints to cover the corner.

In Coach Beilein's 1-3-1 the rotations of 2 and 5 will depend on weather Michigan is playing their aggressive style or their more conservative 1-3-1.

Remember Beilein's philosophy is to mix-up the defense which keeps the offense guessing.  This diagram shows the passive approach as 2 slides near the foul line and 5 drops down near the low post.  From this position yellow 2 can cover both red 2 and red 3 in the corner but he isn't denying a pass to either player.

If Michigan was using their aggressive style, yellow 2 would move up to deny the pass to red 2 and yellow 5 would put himself in position to cover both 5 on the low block and also 3 in the corner.  With their aggressive rotations a pass to the ball side corner is denied and the pass to the opposite guard out-front is also denied.  This will lead many teams to attempt a skip pass (cross court pass) to the opposite corner.  When a skip pass is made to the opposite corner, yellow 5 can "gamble" on making the steal.




Corner Trap Rotations

The corner is a prime trapping hot-spot for Michigan or any other basketball team using the 1-3-1.  This diagram shows a corner trap and the resulting rotations.  Notice we've denied all the passing lanes and our opposite side wing player (3) has "split the difference" between red 1 and red 4.  From here 3 can cover the skip pass to either player. 









Another Corner Trap (Covering The Skip Pass)

Another diagram of a corner trap showing how Michigan denies the passing lanes and covers cross court skip passes.










Dealing With Offensive Cutters

Many zone offenses will use cutters going through the lane area so I'll discuss a few points on guarding the cutters.

In the diagram you'll see the ball is trapped in the corner and red 1 is cutting through the lane.  To guard these types of plays yellow 1 would stay with the cutter until he/she enters yellow 2's area, at which time yellow 2 would pick up the cutter and yellow 1 would move back out-front to continue guarding his/her area.

The basic principle of dealing with cutters in the 1-3-1 is the player closest to the cutter will stay with him/her until "the cutter" moves into another player's area, at which time "the defender whose area the cutter moved into would pick him up".






Aggressive or Conservative Defensive Rotations

Remember the comments by UCLA Coach Ben Howland about how at times Michigan was playing you aggressively and at other times their backing off you making you guess.  The diagram on the left shows an example of how Michigan does this and also shows another offensive formation you may encounter while running a 1-3-1.

In this scenario the offense has both a high post and low post player. 
You'll notice I've used a red line for the conservative rotations and a blue line for the aggressive rotations.  I know this may be confusing but it's the best way I could think of to make my point. 







Conservative Example

I'll start with the conservative rotations first since this is easiest to understand.  With the basketball in the corner yellow 5 has already moved down to cover the low post as usual.  Yellow 1 can simply move down to cover red 2 in the high post and yellow 2 will move toward lane area as usual to cover cutters and the skip pass to the opposite corner.  These are standard rotations which will take away the pass to the post players but will leave an easy pass out of the corner trap back out front to red 1.

Aggressive Example

Now I'll discuss the aggressive approach which is depicted by the blue lines.  Notice yellow 2 has moved farther across lane area to help deny a pass to red 2 in the high post.  This will allow yellow 1 to deny the pass out to red 1 but will make the defense more susceptible to the cross court skip pass because yellow 2 will have more "ground to cover" to reach the corner.

Yellow 1 instead of sliding down to simply cover red 2 as he did in the conservative approach has moved into a position to both deny a pass back out to red 1 and also give help in defending the high post player.  In other words he's now "split the difference" between the two players so he can "gamble" on stealing a pass made to either player.  These aggressive rotations puts pressure on the offense and forces more turnovers but can also leave the defense in bad positions when their steal attempts fail.

Beilein's 1-3-1 Match-Up Zone

While preparing the diagrams for this article I left out the diagrams for Beilein's 1-3-1 match-up zone so I won't be spending as much time talking about it as I had planned.  I'll post these diagrams at a later date, for now you can refer to above diagram on "dealing with cutters" to get a good idea of how the match-up zone works.  The match-up zone Beilein uses is built to confuse the offense and adds yet another way for Beilein to mix-up his 1-3-1. 

If you're familar with other match-up zones such as, the 2-1-2 match-up then the principles of the 1-3-1 match-up should be fairly easy to understand. 
If you're not familar with match-up zones then a breif definition would be that you're playing a zone defense using man to man principles.  Remember in the section on dealing with cutters I said the defender closest to the cutter would stay with him until "the cutter" reaches another defenders area of the court, at this time the "other defender" would pick-up the cutter. 
In a lot of ways this is like a switching man to man defense fromm a 1-3-1 set-up.  I'll cover the 1-3-1 match-up much better in the animation of Beilein's defense which should be ready soon.   


I hope I've made some of my key points clear enough for you to get the basic concepts of the 1-3-1 zone defense.  I'll have an animation of the 1-3-1 in the defensive playbook soon and I'm sure the animation will help make the points somewhat more understandable.  As mentioned I'll also be discussing more aspects of Beilein's 1-3-1 match-up zone.

I realize I've put a lot of information in this article and hope I haven't lost you by jumping from topic to topic.  I don't like publishing such long articles because I personally don't like to read long article but the topic dictated the length.  There are still plenty of aspects I'd like to discuss about the 1-3-1 and Beilein's philosophies but due to the article length I think I should discuss the other aspects in a separate article.

View The Animation of the 1-3-1 Defense


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