How, UCLA Guard Walt Hazzard was asked, would he appraise Cazzie Russell, the Michigan guard? Hazzard thought a bit. He is a senior, 6 feet 3 and 188 pounds, which is a nice size for a guard, but Russell is a 19-year-old sophomore who is 6 feet 5½ and 220 pounds. "Well," Hazzard said, "it is a very good thing that I am getting out of college, because there isn't going to be much room for me if they start finding guys that size who play guard."
Luckily for the Hazzards there are not many Cazzie Russells around but, as Hazzard knows full well, if there are any, the basketball coaches will find them. The nation is just chock full of growing boys, and as sure as coaches are falling over themselves to get 6-foot-5½ guards, they are also finding 6-foot-8 forwards and 6-foot-10 centers. It is a distinct surprise then, as well as an affront to the law of gravity, that two of the best teams in the country today—both unbeaten—are Hazzard's UCLA Bruins and the Kentucky Wildcats. Neither of these teams has a starter over 6 feet 5, and they are not the only little folks running wild either. Villanova, Utah and Illinois are all succeeding with teams predominantly composed of players who have no trouble buying suits right off the rack.
This turn of events was most plainly pointed up last week when Kentucky thumped a big Notre Dame team, 101-81, while UCLA gave Cazzie Russell and his taller Michigan teammates their first loss, 98-80. The Michigan game paved the way for the Bruins to take their second straight title in the Los Angeles Classic—the best of this year's holiday tournaments. UCLA won with the perseverance and crisp execution that exemplifies the success of the good little teams. The Bruins showed that, at least early in the season, a well-coached squad with good personnel, regardless of its size, can win even when it is playing under its heads. "I've been looking up to everybody I've played against for four years," says Fred Slaughter, the 6-foot-5 UCLA center, "so there's just no reason to get stage fright any more."
Slaughter survives against the giants because he gets so much help from his teammates. UCLA Coach Johnny Wooden demands, for example, that all his players work the backboards. The result is balanced rebounding that permits UCLA to keep on winning against bigger opponents. Though they were out-rebounded by Michigan, it was two big Bruin offensive rebounds at just the right time that keyed the game. Michigan had fought from far back to trail by only 44-41 at half time, and appeared to have momentum. But at the start of the second half, twice after missing shots, UCLA hustled for the rebounds, made the second shots and jumped back up to a seven-point lead. Michigan could never catch up, and the Bruins went on to the championship.
The Michigan-UCLA game was only the semifinal, as a result of badly planned pairings that placed the tournament's top three contenders—Michigan, UCLA and NYU—in the same half of the draw. Yale, which had not been in such heady company since it was bracketed with God and country, was the only one of the weaker teams in this half. Illinois, with minimal competition in its half, thus eased through to the finals, while NYU and Michigan had to meet in the first round. The pairings were made by the ingenious method of drawing slips out of a hat way back in May. If the L.A. Classic people were handling Armageddon, they probably would schedule it when everyone was out for lunch.
There was, then, a definite letdown for the finale, but Illinois, a promising young team, made it exciting by almost catching UCLA before losing 83-79. The Illini are, except for their talented center, Skip Thoren, even smaller than the Uclans, and Coach Harry Combes shifts no less than eight men, who range all the way from 6 feet 1½ to 6 feet 2, like spare parts in a gyp TV-repair shop.
The anti-Russell strategy
Russell was superb in scoring 26 points in Michigan's opening 83-74 win over NYU, but Wooden and UCLA succeeded in stopping him, and by doing so stopped Michigan. Wooden put Forward Jack Hirsch on Russell instead of Hazzard. He did not want to risk having Hazzard draw too many fouls early in the game, and besides, Hazzard's forte is playmaking, not defense. Hirsch, on the other hand, is good on defense and familiar with guarding in the pivot, a position he played in high school. This is a requisite where Russell is concerned, for a set part of the Michigan offense is for Russell to move from the backcourt to the post. Hazzard guarded junior Forward Larry Tregoning, and Tregoning is a good shot, but Wooden reasoned he was better off putting the greater pressure on Russell, a sophomore. "We hoped," he said, "that if Russell, a soph, started missing early, his game might fall apart faster than if Tregoning, who's a junior, had that happen to him." The reasoning could not have been sounder. Bothered by Hirsch and the tight UCLA full-court zone press, Russell was called three times for traveling, and threw one pass away in the first five minutes of play as UCLA moved to a 15-9 lead. Before the half was over, Russell was called for traveling a fourth time, threw two more passes away and even missed a lay-up. He accounted for seven of his team's 12 first-half turnovers as he played like a sophomore for the first time this year.
The defeat was not all Russell's fault, though. The Wolverines repeatedly muffed easy shots, and Slaughter did an excellent job of containing Bill Buntin, the All-Big Ten center.
However, the main reason for Michigan's only loss this year was Gail Goodrich, a UCLA backcourt man who has usually been described as the anonymous character who plays the other guard spot opposite Hazzard. Goodrich was not only the best player against Michigan—utilizing a deadly left-handed jumper, he hit 11 of 17 shots and made 30 points—but was chosen the most valuable player in the tournament. At a time when little men are assuming command, Goodrich is no less than the prototype of them all. He is generously listed at 6 feet 1 and 160 pounds, but even if he just does top 6 feet, he has come a long way fast. When Wooden first saw Goodrich in high school, Gail was 5 feet 8 and 135, and what he saw in the tiny high school junior was quick hands. "Quickness," Wooden says, "is the most important thing in athletics. In anything—baseball, football, even golf." And quickness is the quality that lets the Bruins control a game and a bigger team with their tenacious zone press. "Our press, when we do it properly," says Wooden, "sets a tempo for the whole game, and when we get the other team falling into our tempo we have gained a big advantage." Goodrich, coming direct from the battle lines, is more mundane. "We're so little, we just have to press."
Wooden's teams, large or small, are extremely well conditioned, which is particularly necessary this year, because the bench is so thin. Practices are highly organized, to get the team in shape. Efficiency is the cue, and Wooden is never given to fire-and-brimstone speeches before a game. "Quiet and businesslike," he says. "That's how I expect them to go out on the floor." This demeanor, unfortunately, quickly disappears once the game begins. Their size notwithstanding, the greatest weakness of the Bruins may be their propensity to become so easily ruffled at officials' decisions. No other players in the Classic approached UCLA in displays of anguish and dismay at virtually every call against them. Parleys with the referees went on endlessly. One close observer thinks this cry babying will prove the team's downfall. "Sure, they're going fine now," he says, "so everything is rosy. But if they lose a couple, these guys might fold up on themselves."
That, however, is contingent on the Bruins losing, and so far there has been no indication that there will be any of that. UCLA has played a tough schedule; their nine victims include Creighton, Kansas State, Kansas and Butler besides Michigan and Illinois. Quiet and businesslike, Coach Wooden sends his players out on the floor, turns, winks to his wife in the stands and then watches UCLA show that sometimes—and this year anyway—the taller they are, the longer they fall.