Hoops 101

Fran Fraschilla

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Tuesday, January 7
Updated: March 12, 9:01 PM ET
Understanding what you're watching

By Fran Fraschilla
Special to ESPN.com

There's an old coaching adage that says, "It doesn't matter how much the coach knows, it matters how much his players know." With that in mind, welcome to ESPN.com's Hoops 101.

Call me ESPN.com's "coach" here at Bristol University. And, as the season winds its way to March Madness, I'll try to cover as many different aspects of the games you'll be watching each week. We'll go inside basketball's strategy and tactics to help you better understand what led up to those wins and losses. From the Kansas fast break to Syracuse's stifling 2-3 zone, we'll take you inside the huddle and onto the practice floor to show you what it takes to reach the dance.

Here is a look at the class syllabus. Consider the final exam a take home test the day after the Final Four:


  • Zone Offense (Jan. 13)
  • Transition Offense (Jan. 21)
  • The Triangle Offense (Jan. 28)
  • The UCLA High Post Offense (Feb. 12)
  • The Flex Offense (Feb. 18)
  • Motion Offense (Feb. 25)
  • The Princeton System: Part I (March 4)
  • The Princeton System: Part II (March 12)


  • The 2-2-1 Press (Jan. 7)
  • The Syracuse 2-3 zone (Jan. 13)
  • Man to Man Defense and Its Various Styles (Feb. 4)

    Exactly what are the X's and O's? Believe it or not, every season during our first basketball meeting with the team, my coaching staff answers the same question -- whether players ask or not -- by going up to the blackboard to teach our newcomers the "language of basketball". Or, the "X's and O's". You'd be surprised how often a player with the skills to play this game hadn't been exposed to this basic aspect of coaching.

    So, we'll started from the basics. The language will help you follow along with each weekly topic, as well as what the play-by-play, or analyst is talking about during the broadcasts throughout the year.

    Let's get started!

    Offense and Defense
    Each player on offense is numbered by position, while the defenders are designated with an "X". (Diagram 1) Most coaches have a point guard, big guard, small forward, power forward and a center. We use "1" to describe the point guard, "2" to describe the shooting guard, "3" for the small forward, "4" for the power forward, and "5" for the center. In some offenses, the 2 and the 3 positions are called wings and the 4 and 5 are the post men. And, there are a few offensive systems like "motion offense" or the" Princeton system" where the various positions are interchangeable. So, for the most part, it does not matter what we call them.

    Diagram 1

    Movement of the Players and the Ball
    An offensive player with a circle on his number is the player who has the basketball. When an offensive player cuts, we use the straight line with arrow. When an offensive player moves to screen, use the straight line with a perpendicular line at the end. (Diagram 2).

    Diagram 2

    A dribble is designated by a "squiggly line" and a pass is a "dotted line". (Diagram 3)

    Diagram 3

    Areas Of The Court
    The low post is the area most people recognize as near the basket, while the high post is the area from the foul-line out past the top of the key. The foul-line extended encompasses the wing areas and the short corners are at the mid-point of the corners and the basket on the baseline. (Diagram 4) And the elbow is the area where the foul lane and foul line intersect.

    Diagram 4

    Back screens occur when an offensive player sets a screen behind the vision of the defender to get his teammates open moving to the basket.(Diagram 5).

    Diagram 5

    Down screens free up players usually moving away from the basket to help them get in position for a jump shot. (Diagram 6).

    Diagram 6

    Flare screens most often occur randomly in "motion offense" as a player moves from the inside of the court off the screen to the outside of the court. Rick Majerus' Utah Utes are as good as anyone at executing the flare screen. (Diagram 7)

    Diagram 7

    Staggered double screens are an excellent way to free up an outside shooter with two consecutive screens usually set by a team's two big men. (Diagram 8)

    Diagram 8

    Screen the screen plays are tricky to defend because the man guarding the first screen must protect the basket against a lay up and then get back out to defend his man, who comes off the second screen for a jump shot. (Diagram 9)

    Diagram 9

    The UCLA cut is something we'll cover in more detail later in the course. This takes place when a guard rubs off the screen from his teammate at the elbow and cuts to the low post for a lay-up or a post-up. (Diagram 10)

    Diagram 10

    America's Play (Diagram 11) is named as such because it seems like everyone in the country runs this play. It is in a "box set" and starts with a cross screen in the post and then ends with a staggered double screen.

    Diagram 11

    A sound play for a good jump shooter gives him two routes. (Diagram 12) This is what we call a "single-double", which allows 2 to have the option of coming off the single screen or the double screen.

    Diagram 12

    Here is an example of two zipper cuts. (Diagram 13) As 1 dribbles to the left wing, 5 screens down for 2. This play allows 1 to either pass to 5 posting up or pass to 2. As 2 catches the pass, 4 screens down for 3, who comes off looking for the jump shot. The "straight down" action of the screen are why we call this a "zipper cut".

    Diagram 13

    Anyone who is familiar with "old school" basketball is familiar with the screen and roll play. (Diagram 14) We usually use a big man to screen on the basketball. Does the big defender switch onto the smaller, quicker guard? We want the 1 to try to get into the lane and set up 4 "rolling" into the lane. Or, in the case of a great shooting big man like Matt Bonner of Florida, popping out to the three point line for the jumper before the defender can recover.

    Diagram 14

    We use the roll and replace in the screen and roll at the top of the key as a way to get one big man rolling to the basket and replacing him with the other big man who usually a good shooter. In this diagram, 4's man stays in the lane to protect the basket as 5 "rolls" which usually means that 4 will be open coming to the top. (Diagram 15)

    Diagram 15

    While we will cover offenses that get the ball frequently into the low post later in the year, we want to cover the post split now. A lot offenses you'll see during the season will feed the post man and split off of him in an "X cut" designed to cause confusion on the part of the defenders. And, keeping them occupied makes it less likely that they can help on the post man. (Diagram 16)

    Diagram 16

    That's all for our first class in Hoops 101. There may be a weekly "pop quiz," so start studying.

    Q & A with Fran Fraschilla

    Send in your Hoops 101 questions. Fran Fraschilla will answer a few of them next week.

    Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach before joining ESPN this season as an broadcast analyst. He guided both Manhattan (1993, 1995) and St. John's (1998) to the NCAA Tournament in his nine seasons as a Division I head coach, leaving New Mexico following the end of the 2001-02 season.

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