A 3-2 zone in basketball is a zone formation that utilizes three players in the front (towards the three-point line) and two players in the back (closest to the basket). Unlike man-to-man defense, in which every defender is tasked with guarding an individual player on the offense, zone defense holds defenders accountable for an area of space. Any member of the offense that enters a defender's assigned space becomes their responsibility.
The three players at the top of the 3-2 zone are generally the point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Each of these players tend to be agile and capable of quick lateral movements, allowing them to keep up with speedy offensive players trying to get open for a shot attempt. The back portion of the 3-2 zone is reserved for the defense's "big men," more specifically the power forward and center. They are usually the team's tallest and strongest players, allowing them to contest short shot attempts near the basket. When playing a 3-2 zone, many teams elect to use a "stretch-four" rather than a traditional power forward. A "stretch four" is a player that has the agility and ball handling skills of a small forward, in addition to the height of a power forward. This unique skill set allows the player to defend the rim and sprint out to the three point to contest a shot attempt from the corner.
The defenders at the front of the zone are responsible for guarding the middle of the floor, just before and beyond the three point line. Meanwhile, the defenders at the back of the zone must protect the paint (shaded area that extends from the foul line to the baseline). When the offense manages to swing the ball to the corner, it is up to the defense to decide whether the front or back defenders contest the ball carrier. While it easier for the front defenders to simply shuffle over and contest any shot attempts from the corner, they sometimes risk living an offensive player at the top of the three point line wide open. If this is the case, one of the back players becomes responsible for vacating the paint to stop the ball carrier.
The 3-2 zone works best when the defense is trying to limit an offense that shoots three-pointers exceptionally well. Placing three players up top to span the entire three-point line helps prevent that offensive players from getting loose for a wide open shot attempt. Playing a successful 3-2 zone requires the defense to have a very skilled power forward and center down low, as they are tasked with a number of responsibilities including protecting the corner, rebounding and stopping the opposing big men from scoring when the ball enters the painted area.