The way the University of Michigan team sees it, the meek will never inherit the game of basketball and anyone who thinks it is a noncontact sport has been reading too many rule books. The Wolverines lovingly refer to that area of the court from the key to the basket as Bloody Nose Lane. The designation was actually Coach Dave Strack's, but Strack is a bashful, unpresumptuous father of five and is reluctant to take full credit. In any case, when a fun-loving Wolverine drives down Bloody Nose Lane he calls it "going in to cut me some meat"—which means he's going for two points, or for a rebound, or for something more filling. Coach Strack calls that "clean, aggressive ruthlessness," and the Big Ten is reeling under the impact. There has not been a cleaner, more impressive bunch of carnivores in the conference since the Ohio State teams of Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek a few years ago, or one that is so obviously the best.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and when proof was needed last weekend in Ann Arbor the Wolverines were up to their appetites. They took on—were served up—the Ohio State team, Big Ten champion four years running and winner over the Wolverines in seven straight. It is early to be talking championship, but at the same point last year Michigan went into the Ohio State game with a 10-1 record, came out a loser and eventually disintegrated. This time the Wolverines were 11-1, bigger ("the days of Michigan being the scrawniest team in the league are past," said Strack), better, stronger, tougher, more confident—and favored. At breakfast the morning of the game, Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor broke the yolk of his poached egg and watched it spread over his corned-beef hash. "I didn't exactly fill my bed with sleep," he said. "This is a big one. I'd give my left front fender to win. If somebody doesn't beat Michigan pretty soon, people are going to get the idea it can't be done."
Later that afternoon, after watching Michigan's Bill Buntin and the captivating prodigy, Cazzie Lee Russell Jr., break and run over his Buckeyes 82-64, Coach Taylor was asked if, since Ohio State had been unable to, there were any other Big Ten teams this season that might stand a chance with Michigan. "Possibly," he said. "But I don't know who the devil it would be."
The beating was thorough because in every are a Michigan was superior. Buntin, All-Big Ten and just a junior, and the jazzy Cazzie scored 27 points apiece. Michigan outrebounded Ohio 49-34; Russell was high with 13. He may not be the only 6-foot-5, 218-pound guard in college basketball, but he plays the corner on defense and, more often than not, he drives to the baseline to become, in effect, a third forward on offense. This maneuver exposes Michigan to an opposing fast break, but Strack says he can stand the gamble even if he cannot stand the excitement.
The practical effect of Russell, Center Buntin (at 6 feet 7, 230 pounds) and the other fine sophomore, Forward Oliver Darden (6 feet 7, 220), all jamming Bloody Nose Lane at once is an irreverent accumulation of elbows, knees, hips and the cries of the offended, not all of whom are the opposition. "You've got to quit crashing into me so much," Buntin has been heard telling Darden.
Larry Tregoning, 6 feet 5, 195, is the other forward. He is less show and more substance on defense, which he plays with an uncommon zest. He held Duke's Jeff Mullins to 14 points and NYU's Barry Kramer to 11. The fifth starter is 5-foot-10 Guard Bob Cantrell, the only senior. Cantrell is the team captain. Strack was once told he could never win with Cantrell; Cantrell then held Western Michigan's Manny Newsome, the nation's leading scorer, to 10 points in 33 minutes. "He had his hand in Newsome's face every minute, even during time-outs," said a Michigan man, "and when Newsome went into a huddle Larry followed him there, too. Now that's defense."
Ohio State's Taylor was hopeful of taking advantage of Russell's inexperience by picking him off with a double post ("I knew we couldn't match their physical strength"), sliding Forward Don DeVoe across or coming back with the ball to All-America Center Gary Bradds. Taylor will never know if it would have worked because both teams were dreadfully inaccurate at the start—Bradds missed seven of his first eight shots—and the ball handling was sandlot. There were 23 turnovers (loss of possession) in the first half alone.
The game dragged along until it was even at 8-8 after six minutes. Then Cantrell, the fellow Strack could not win with, hit two straight jump shots from either side of the key, and Michigan was in front for good. None of the three men Taylor tried, including Bradds, were able to handle Cazzie Russell on a man-to-man basis, but Taylor had no choice because when Cazzie was not scoring, Buntin was dropping in hook shots from the corners. Russell stole the ball five times ("I made up my mind I was going to be everywhere, even on defense," he said afterward), and by half time the Wolverines were ahead by 12 and breathing easy. Bradds wound up with 27 points, but he had hit for more than 30 against Michigan twice last year. This time he did not have an outside shooter—State's principal weakness—to complement him. Double-teamed frequently, he missed 13 of 23 shots.
It was the worst beating a Michigan team had given Ohio State in 34 years, but it practically took an archivist to find that out because Michigan has been ashamed to show its basketball records most of those years, and nobody cared much anyhow. Michigan's way of regarding basketball in the past has been to disregard it. The Wolverines still play in comical old Yost Field House, where they used to have to shoot the pigeons out of the rafters before a game and where you can sit in any one of 4,000 of the 8,000 seats and not see a thing. In Dave Strack's first two years as head coach (he was assistant for 11 years before that), he had his son Davie pass out tickets to his buddies to dress up the crowd. Now Davie complains that all his friends think he is a piker because he does not have tickets enough to go around. And Publicist Les Etter, who used to cross his legs and relax for the winter after the football season, complains because he does not have press box enough to go around.
Last fall Fritz Crisler, athletic director, had to start charging student admission for football games so that those Michigan students who paid would have priority on basketball seats. The problem then became thornier: there were 14,000 claimants to 8,000 student seats in Yost Field House. Bogus tickets, some crudely lettered, began to appear. For games like Ohio State, two-by-six planks were laid across cement blocks to provide extra seating at each end of the court, but not until local television was inaugurated last week was the crush relieved. A new field house is contemplated.
Coach Strack caused all the trouble by providing a winning team. He is a former Michigan team captain who simply couldn't believe the Wolverines had to be so lousy in basketball all the time, although the weight of experience was clearly against him. As an assistant he was grooming himself for the job as head coach, but Crisler had him in mind for business manager. Crisler simply liked the way Strack handled tickets. Finally Strack got an offer and went to Idaho as head coach in 1959. "I'd just about given up," he said. "I'd applied for every job that came along for years, and by then I was pushing 40." A year at Idaho and an undistinguished 11-15 record qualified him to return to Michigan to be the next in a long line of undistinguished basketball coaches.
Strack appears always to be one kind word away from a blush. Before the Ohio State game a friend introduced him at the Town Club as "the greatest coach in America," and he practically ran out of the place. Nevertheless, if he is humble he is also tough-minded. There was no doubt what he had in mind for Michigan basketball, but he kept it quiet because nobody would have believed it anyway.
"The first couple years were painful. We were a painful team to look at," he says. But whereas Michigan teams of the past had, by rival coaches' estimate, been predictable as the tide, Strack's stylings were different. "Everything I use I've stolen from somebody," he says, but Michigan began to win and he began to pile up all kinds of firsts: two full-time assistants, a slick-back brochure (Publicist Etter was really going strong now), a team banquet, a game program, the first sale of hot dogs and cold drinks at the field house. And he recruited.
Buntin, Tregoning and Cantrell were happy surprises because hardly anybody else wanted them. Michigan was Cantrell's fourth choice. All-Star Buntin, whose wife now tends the largest scrap-book in Ann Arbor, was invited on the basis of his play in a Detroit recreation league. He was not able to make his first interview at the university because he did not have bus fare to get there.
The difficult prize to win was Russell, who was approached by some 70 schools. Cincinnati even had Oscar Robertson go around to see him, and Robertson gave him a pair of shoes that Russell cherishes to this day. But Strack won out by selling him on Michigan's scholastic standing, Cazzie says, and by keeping him away from Yost Field House. "I took him over there to see it," says Strack, "but I discovered when we got out front that I'd left my key at the office."
Russell has the whimsical look of a man who has been roused out of bed at 3 in the morning but is too good-natured and too sleepy to be angry. He is a huge favorite in Ann Arbor, pounding the ball like a Globetrotter on his dribble as if to put it through the floor, holding up his hand when he tips in a shot to make sure folks know who that marvelous kid was who made those points. "You've got a little Oscar in you," Cazzie was told recently. "Yessir," he answered politely, "and a little wolverine in me, too." He denies he ever said that Michigan would win three straight NCAA championships once Cazzie Russel made the scene in Ann Arbor. Michigan fans are not holding him to it. But they do not think they would be spoiled if Cazzie and Buntin and the boys should win the Big Ten title. Michigan has not had one in 16 years.