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Basketball Defense - the Amoeba Defense

By Dr. James Gels, From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
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coach Jerry Tarkanian
Coach Jerry Tarkanian

The originator of the Amoeba defense was late coach Jerry Tarkanian (990-228 career coaching record) at UNLV some years ago. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski once said of Tarkanian, "Jerry had consistent high levels of success because his teams played hard defensively. He's one of the truly remarkable defensive coaches."

This is a gambling zone defense that will help you get some steals and fast breaks. I had previously stated that, "It would not be wise to structure your team's entire half-court defense based on the Amoeba. Rather, use it as something disruptive, that you can throw in at various times in a game to confuse the opponent, and force some turnovers. In fact, I believe that Coach Tarkanian played man-to-man defense, and the Amoeba."

But now coach Ryan McCarthy, University of Alaska-Anchorage Women's Head Coach, has expanded Tark's original Amoeba defense. He calls it the The "Mayhem" Amoeba-Style Defense. Coach McCarthy has improved the blueprint created by Coach Tarkanian to create a version of the defense that can be sustained through an entire game. This defensive style combines both pressure man-to-man and zone principles to be as disruptive as possible.

This article describes the basic rules of Coach Tarkanian's original Amoeba defense. To learn more about the Mayhem version of the Amoeba, get the DVD "The Mayhem Amoeba-Style Defense".

Initial Setup of the Amoeba (vs a One-Guard Front)

See diagram A. At the start, it looks like a diamond-and-1, with the X1 defender pressuring the ball as soon as it crosses half-court. A key point is to use your two quickest, best defensive athletes at the X1 and X2 positions. X1 pressures O1 (the ball-handler), making it difficult for O1 to either dribble or pass.

X2 starts at the high post, denying the pass there. X3 and X4 start along the lane lines, just below the elbows, facing toward the sidelines. X5 is the "hoop defender". The hoop defender must never get beaten by a low cut (from behind), and his/her rule is to "get as low as the lowest offensive player".

Amoeba defense - Pass to the Wing Amoeba defense - Pass to the Wing Amoeba defense - Pass to the Wing

Pass to the Wing

O1 passes to O2 (diagram B). X2 sprints over and closes out on the ball (O2). O1 drops to defend the high post (free-throw line). If O2 begins to dribble, X3 quickly sprints out and double-teams O2, with X2. X5 slides over to front (deny) the ball-side post, and X4 drops inside to become the hoop defender (diagram C).

X1 and X4 look to intercept, or contain, any skip pass across the court. This is a difficult pass out of a trap, because of our trapping defenders with arms up can sometimes tip the ball. If the ball is passed back out to O1, no problem, as O1 will not hurt us way out there. All defenders just rotate back to their original spots. If O2 dribbles down toward the corner, a quick anticipating X1 defender might be able to intercept the pass back out to O1.

Pass to the Corner

The ball is passed to O4 in the corner (diagram D). X5 sprints and closes out on O4 in the corner. X3 immediately drops inside to front the post. This is called a defensive "X-cut". Often, O4 initially sees the low post O5 open (vacated by X5), and passes inside, not seeing X3 dropping inside. X3 can steal this pass and get the fast-break going.

Additionally, when closing out on the corner, X5 should get hands ready to deny that passing lane, and try to deflect the pass. X2 denies the pass back out to the wing. X1 and X4 have back-side and topside, skip-pass responsibility.

Amoeba defense - defending the corner and Skip Passes Amoeba defense - defending the corner and Skip Passes

Defending Skip Passes

Diagram E shows the skip-pass from the corner. X4 closes out on the ball O3. X3 slides across the lane to become the post defender. X5 drops inside as the hoop defender. X2 covers the high post, and X1 gets into the passing lane to O1. Now X2 and X5 cover any skip-pass going back to the right side.

Defending a Two-Guard Front - Triple-Teaming the High Post

Here, the offense uses two guards. X1 and X2 match-up with the two guards... Once the pass is made to the high post, X1 and X2... (more)

Amoeba defense - defending the corner and Skip Passes

See the complete article in the members section.

The complete article also includes:
  • Defending the two-guard front
  • Triple-teaming the high post