Last friday night in Seattle, the (University of California's tall, laconic center, Darrall Imhoff, sat in the stands watching a basketball game between the universities of Utah and Oregon before his own team would take the floor against Santa Clara. Utah, a powerful offensive team averaging 85 points a game, was heavily favored. Only a few minutes had gone by, but Imhoff was already unimpressed with Utah. "They're going to lose," he said, "because they just don't play good defense. If you don't play good defense you have nothing to fall back on when your own shooting is off. When our shooting is cold our defense is always there to pull us through. That's the way we win." Then he walked off to the locker room to dress for California's game.
While Imhoff was gone, Oregon demonstrated just how correct his analysis of Utah's defenses was. Oregon's fiery little Chuck Rask slipped repeatedly through Utah's zone or its frantic press to score, and his sidekick, lanky Glenn Moore, was just as effective. Oregon won 65-54, their own defenses holding Utah to 31 points below Utah's normal total.
The same evening, half a continent away in Louisville, Ohio State was proving the very opposite of the Imhoff thesis in a game against Western Kentucky. An offensive powerhouse like Utah, Ohio State was also the strong favorite on the basis of its 90-plus point average per game, best in the nation. Against Western Kentucky, Ohio State's defenses were considerably loss than impressive. But, fast-breaking like a college edition of the Boston Celtics and shooting from outside as if the basket were a barn door, State got 98 points to Western's 79. Time after time, the State defense failed, and the team fell back on its offense. State was actually behind at half time, 37-43. One minute and 29 seconds after play resumed, State had gone from 6 behind to 2 ahead, literally overwhelming Western with its explosive running attack.
Both of these games—providing such contrasting evidence in the perennial debate over offense versus defense—were part of the national collegiate championship tournament. In addition to games at Louisville and Seattle, other elimination rounds were played last weekend in Charlotte, N.C. and Manhattan, Kans. Interestingly enough, they too offered proof on both sides of the argument. In Charlotte, New York University fought its way to the semifinals, beating West Virginia and Duke with two excellent defensive efforts. At Manhattan, Cincinnati's quick-breaking offense swamped DePaul by 40 points, and then it ran away from Kansas by 11 points in the closing minutes of a tight game. Thus, the four remaining teams in the tournament who meet this weekend in San Francisco's Cow Palace to determine a national champion are perfectly balanced on either side of the theoretical approaches to basketball. California and NYU are still in contention primarily because of their defenses, Cincinnati and Ohio State because of their offenses.
One other aspect of this tournament makes it particularly attractive. In recent years quite a few teams have come into the NCAA largely because of the spectacular talent of one player. Kansas had its Wilt Chamberlain, Seattle its Elgin Baylor and, for the past two years, Cincinnati has had Oscar Robertson and West Virginia, Jerry West. Despite the immense psychological advantage the presence of such brilliant individuals lends, not one of these whizzes has led his team to a championship.
Now that West Virginia has again been eliminated, only Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati's "Big O," remains to test whether one great, inspired player can bring a team the final victory. As he approaches the climax of a remarkable collegiate career, during which he has broken scoring records right and left, Robertson certainly appears capable of winning the title singlehanded. He scored "only" 29 points while his team was beating DePaul easily, but when Cincinnati desperately needed every bit of his skill in the close contest with Kansas, he scored 43. For three years now, every conceivable defense has been tried against Robertson and pitifully few have come anywhere near working.
PROOF FROM THE PAST
It is highly significant, therefore, that California is the team Cincinnati must beat on Friday night in order to get to the final on Saturday. Cal has already shown it can handle Oscar Robertson. In the semifinals of last year's tournament, Cal met Cincinnati, rigged nothing special for Robertson and won. Every player at California, under the highly skilled direction of Coach Pete Newell, works hard on defense all year.
Cal has another weapon that has worked before and should do so again—the tall, graceful Darrall Imhoff. Whenever a rival player slips away from his California defender and tries to drive close in to the basket, Imhoff is there to block the shot or at least intimidate him. Imhoff was just learning how to perform this Bill Russell-like trick at tournament time last year. This season he became adept at it.
Cal has other advantages over Cincinnati. Imhoff, Bill McClintock, Tandy Gillis and the other Californians rarely commit a ball-handling error. If something goes wrong with one of their deliberately set-up plays, they simply back off and start their pattern over again. They will not be hurried; they get the shot they want or they don't shoot.
Cincinnati also has the problem of handling Imhoff when Cal has the ball, and only one man, Paul Hogue, is tall enough for the job. Against Kansas last weekend, Hogue again displayed his critical weakness: very early in the game he had to be benched because he had already committed three fouls. If Cincinnati has to play Cal without Hogue on the floor for long periods, Imhoff may well outscore Robertson.
STRENGTH IN RESERVES
In the other half of the draw, Ohio State will face NYU, and despite the momentum NYU has built up in recent weeks, State appears clearly the stronger team. Even counting Cal, State has the best reserve talent in the field. This is especially important in tournament basketball, when one loss eliminates a team. If one or two players get into foul trouble or are unaccountably off their game, there must be men on the bench who can come in without weakening the team.
Last weekend, State Guard Mel Nowell had, for him, a rather poor first half against Western Kentucky. Coach Fred Taylor started Gary Gearhart in Nowell's place after the intermission, and Gearhart scored two quick field goals to tie the score. Minutes later, another reserve, Bob Knight, tossed in two 20-foot jump shots within 30 seconds.
This, of course, is only a small part of the State offensive story. In the pivot with his soft hooks, underneath with his tip-ins and rebounds, outside with his unstoppable jumpers, State has Jerry Lucas, an All-America in his first varsity season. Lucas already plays with the poise and deadpan assurance of a professional. He gets excellent position under the boards at either end of the court and seldom loses the ball once he gets one of his huge hands on it. At the forwards, State has two fine corner shooters in John Havlicek and Joe Roberts, with Dick Furry and Knight, almost as good, standing by. Havlicek, especially, has great anticipation after a missed shot and manages to be on the spot to retrieve and send the ball up again. The guards, Nowell and Larry Siegfried, are fine ball hawks and lead State's fast break with intelligence as well as extreme speed.
This crew has everything a champion needs, including smart direction from Taylor on the bench. The only thing that can keep it out of the finals is the slight possibility that the large number of sophomores on the squad will all get tournament jitters at the same time. That probably won't happen against NYU. As soon as Coach Lou Rossini is forced to go to his bench, team efficiency drops a notch. The starters are a well-balanced bunch, but they lack over-all speed, and this will hurt them against a running team like Ohio State. At center, long-armed Tom Sanders will give Lucas a battle; within a few feet of the basket only the best defense can contain him, and underneath he is as good a rebounder as State has to offer. NYU's two starting guards, Russ Cunningham and Ray Paprocky, are also a match for their opposite numbers, but in the corners Ohio State has a great edge. NYU's Al Barden played very well in Charlotte, but he is erratic at best on offense, and his defensive talent is not geared to State's speed. Ohio State runs for 40 minutes of every game. It should run away from NYU often enough to win.
It should also run away from California in the final. Up offense, down defense!