Seven hours before his basketball team took the court at Kansas State University last weekend, Cincinnati Coach Ed Jucker sat in a Manhattan, Kans. coffee shop and stared into his empty soft-drink glass. "I'm in a fog," he said. "I just don't know how good we are." Any of the country's several hundred other college basketball coaches would have strained a short rib laughing at this dour sight. Cincinnati had, after all, four starters back from the team that decisively won last year's national championship. It had won its first four games this season with consummate ease. Jucker might have to wonder whether his team could beat the Boston Celtics, but this concern over Kansas State hardly seemed necessary.
Yet Ed Jucker, as intense and analytical a coach as there is in basketball, had a point. Those first four victories were insignificant, he knew, because they were scored over mediocre opposition. This in turn meant that he could not be sure he had made the right decision in replacing his graduated All-America center, Paul Hogue, by shifting Forward George Wilson into Hogue's old spot. Center George Wilson, like national champion Cincinnati, had not really been tested. Now Kansas State was willing to oblige, and was an appropriate opponent to provide Cincinnati's first valid challenge.
Like Cincinnati, Kansas State is a school with an awesome victory tradition. Each has won over 80% of its games during the past five years. What is more significant, both teams feature an unusually aggressive defense, and both operate a pattern offense so faithfully that they are suspected of trying to make the fast break as obsolete as the eight-hour workday. Finally, in Kansas State, Cincinnati was facing a team coached by one of the most resourceful minds in basketball, that of 40-year-old Tex Winter.
While students began lining up outside the K-State field house at noon last Friday in order to maneuver into the best seats for the 9:30 p.m. game, Winter and Jucker were doing some maneuvering of their own at a booster club luncheon downtown. Both coaches have had basketball books published within the past few months, and when they were called upon for a few remarks the two authors unblushingly injected plugs for their works as they indulged in the standard coach's ploy of puffing up the legend of the opponent's strength.
"I want to tell you all how grateful I am that Ed got his new book out in time for me to study it thoroughly before this game," said Tex Winter. "What's the name of your book again, Ed?"
"Cincinnati Power Basketball," said Jucker.
"Oh, that's right. I knew there was 'power' in the title somewhere," said Winter.
A relaxed man with dark hair and an almost sleepy expression, Winter piled up the pressure by stating that he considered Cincinnati the nation's best team during the past two years, and he considers them to be the same thing now.
No laughing matter
Ed Jucker may have had a wonderful sense of humor at one time. But when you coach a basketball team that has won 60 of its last 65 you begin to see enemies everywhere. Why not? There are enemies everywhere. So Jucker fielded Winter's praise with his version of uproarious laughter—a tight-lipped grin. "We're not nearly so deep as we have been the past five years," he said. "We'll just have to struggle along and do our best."
For his part, despite his considerably cheerier appearance, Winter knew his team had to overcome very definite limitations if it was to have the honor of upsetting Cincinnati. He reviewed those limitations later that day in the privacy of his spacious, pale-green office.
"We've lost four of last year's starters and we are inexperienced—much more than I realized," he said. "Last year we ran eight series of options. This year we can use only two." Winter specializes in a complicated offense called the triple post, which requires three tall, strong forwards to rotate in and out of the pivot spot, following a path that forms an imaginary triangle, the apex of which is some seven feet from the basket. Inexperience would limit his defense, too: "Last year we could force other teams to play our game. This year we have to make adjustments, depending on the opponent," he said. Nor do the adjustments always work, as State's 1-3 record showed.
Still, Winter felt his best chance was to pressure Cincinnati's offense. "Everyone will tell me I'm nuts, I suppose, but I think they can be forced out of their pattern. A fast-break team can spoil our type of defense because it doesn't depend on any special patterns to get its shots. But a ball-control team like Cincinnati can be hurt if it doesn't get the opportunities its patterns are supposed to create. We will try to break up their patterns. The big question is whether we have the personnel to do it."
The big answer was no.
While a sellout crowd of 12,500 Kansans looked on in a mood that changed from noisy optimism to subdued awe, Cincinnati's unbelievably poised veterans calmly ignored the rocking, rhythmic clapping, chanting and singing of the excited partisan audience. With an almost casual disdain for the fact that their offense had been perfectly diagnosed, the national champions simply ran that offense anyway, displaying a precision so fine and a discipline so tight that Kansas State's excellent defensive responses were rendered useless. And if the team had a weak bench it could not have mattered less, for substitutes weren't needed.
When State actually stole the ball from them twice in the early minutes and took a 5-2 lead, the Bearcats were not fazed. And when State rallied to within two points of them near the end of the first half, they were not annoyed—they simply executed two pinpoint plays under the basket to lead by six. In the second half, when their timing reached its peak, the Cincinnati players worked the ball in so successfully that they scored a remarkable 12 of their 13 baskets from inside the free-throw lane.
The final score was 75-61. In accomplishing this, Jucker made almost perfect use of every player's ability. Wilson proved supremely adequate as Paul Hogue's replacement at center. He captured 14 rebounds, almost twice as many as anyone else on either team. He scored 22 points and he provided much more speed than Hogue.
The team's only outstanding shooter, Ron Bonham, showed no loss of stamina from the weight-reducing program that shrunk him from 220 pounds to 193. His agility is twice what it was last year, his ability to recover on defense is now excellent, and he is jumping so much better that he got eight rebounds along with his 27 points, despite the fact that a cold had him coughing and sneezing throughout the game.
Cincinnati's best play, which Kansas State was thoroughly prepared for and still couldn't stop, involves two men forming a screen along one side of the free-throw lane while a third darts around from behind them, leaving his guard piled up in all the traffic. It looks deadlier than ever this season because of the quick reactions of Tom Thacker and the uncanny passes of Tony Yates, who also form an almost impenetrable front line on defense.
One of the most meaningful things to be seen in Cincy's win is the way Ed Jucker has taught his players to accept their limitations, an extremely difficult thing for talented young athletes to do. Nobody but Bonham, for example, does any shooting from outside. The rest have the restraint to work and work until they get a shot they can make. The result at Manhattan was a 47% shooting average against a fine defense. Another result may well be a third straight national championship. Cincinnati's foes seem doomed to make the jokes at the banquets, evolve the special strategies—and lose.