They came across the Duke University campus, not like a mob, but in twos and threes, in the manner of a pilgrimage. Eventually about 200 arrived, not a particularly impressive number in a stadium, but this group had assembled on a misty Friday night merely to observe an unadvertised practice by a basketball team. The Duke coach, Vic Bubas, was as surprised as anyone. "I've never seen anything like this," he said, and he said it three times. "We've never had more than eight people show up to see an opponent practice."
The crowd had come to watch the University of Michigan team loosen up for its game with Duke the following night—not just because Michigan is considered by many the best in the nation but because it may be, physically, the most awesome collegiate squad ever put together. No starter is as midgety as 6 feet, and only one undernourished young man weighs less than 200.
Michigan Coach Dave Strack is accustomed to the attention that his monsters arouse; on Friday he was more intent on other matters. Duke was the last team to beat Michigan—in the NCAA semifinals last season. Duke had accomplished this in the only way yet found to beat the Wolverines, with speed and more speed on both offense and defense. Strack told his men that he did not mind if they lost a track meet to Duke, as long as they won a basketball game. Last year, in their three decisive defeats—by UCLA, Minnesota and Duke—Michigan had lost both. Speed had won over brawn.
The Duke battle plan for the game was simple enough: the players referred to it among themselves as Operation Relentless. They would run and run and pressure the Michigan players to such an extent that Michigan would have to sacrifice its superiority in sheer muscle power by picking up the fast tempo. That was the way Michigan had played earlier in the week, in its opening game against Ball State. Repeatedly Michigan had failed to move back and set up quickly enough on defense, and a good first pass over the center line by Ball State had led to several easy scores.
For Michigan's All-America Cazzie Russell, the Blue Devils had a special pre-Christmas gift: they would let him shoot all night, from outside. All Duke efforts would be concentrated on stopping his drives and keeping him from getting the ball to other Michigan players when they were free. That was the way Duke had "handled" Russell last March. He had scored 31 points, but the rest of the Michigan team had been sufficiently well covered to allow Duke to win by 11.
In practice earlier in the week Bubas had decided to call his plan Operation Rat Race but changed it to Operation Relentless when Assistant Coach Bucky Waters suggested that the original term was too corny for the intellectual young Duke athletes. The players were all business in their preparations for the game, but off the court there was a great deal of kidding about all the Michigan footprints that would be decorating their blue-trimmed jerseys afterward.
The Duke campus generally adopted this same spirit. Despite the occasional signs of "Crush Cazzie" painted on trash cans, students were using "No way" as an expression of greeting—meaning there was no way of beating Michigan. But it was all a charade. From Vic Bu-bas on down, everyone was sure there was a way—even those who watched Michigan's practice session.
Saturday night Duke Indoor Stadium was jammed with 8,800. It had been sold out for weeks. After all the plans and poses, the game went strictly to form, including the kind of early-season jitters that led to 17 errors by Michigan and 13 by Duke. The Wolverines survived Operation Relentless 86-79, but gasping and relentlessly, in their own fashion. Though Michigan showed that it can do a little running itself, it was good old reliable muscle that brought the victory. After Duke had come back from a 10-point deficit to tie the game 69-69 and then 71-71 with four and a quarter minutes to go, Michigan's three biggest behemoths settled the issue. One after another—like downbeats in the Anvil Chorus—they rebounded missed shots and scored. First Oliver Darden (6 feet 7, 220), then Cazzie Russell (6 feet 5, 220) and finally Bill Buntin (6 feet 7, 235) picked off offensive rebounds and pounded them home. Suddenly it was 78-71, and Operation Relentless had been beaten to death. Even Duke's strategy for containing Russell was formful, up to a point: his drives were stopped. But the trouble with thwarting one facet of Russell's game is that Cazzie just moves on to something else. He was marvelous at hitting his free teammates, particularly as they cut in from the corners.
Michigan had jumped off to an 18-9 lead, and only then, when Bubas put together a little team—with three men 6 feet 1 or under—did Duke hold on. Still, it was 46-34 at the half, and never were figures so revealing. Russell had five assists and Michigan led in rebounds 27-17.
It was well into the second half before Duke's fast break really worked. The spark at first was Steve Vacendak, a 6-foot-1 forward (the little team was back), and then 6-foot sophomore Bob Verga took over. His drive—Verga's sixth straight point and Duke's fourth straight score off the break—finally evened the game at 69-69 with 5:10 to go. The teams matched a basket each till the big noise off the boards sounded: those three straight scoring rebounds, and it was all over.
Duke proved two things with the loss, however. The success of its tiny team indicates that the way to play Michigan is the way Bubas had been claiming all along—with as much speed and pressure defense as you can muster. It is pointless to try to match Michigan's size. At the same time, unfortunately, Duke's forcing style revealed that Michigan also can run. The Wolverines, in fact, had much more success with the fast break in the first half than Duke did—thanks in great part to Russell's passing. John Thompson, the other Michigan guard, had four assists to bolster his claim to the only open spot on the starting five.
Significantly, that spot was held last year by Bobby Cantrell, who was accustomed to setting up plays in deliberate style. "Bobby liked to slow the action down," says Strack. "The general rule we followed then was not to shoot off the break unless you had the extra man—two-on-one, or three-on-two. But this year we say if you have the good shot on the break, take it." What Strack has done, essentially, is to try to counter the speed he anticipates from opponents with speed of his own. He couldn't do it for 40 minutes against Duke, but he did it enough to win convincingly.
"Look," said Michigan Captain Larry Tregoning after the game, "all those sportswriters say we're not fast. They're wrong. Even Big Bill [Buntin] is fast. Everybody on this team is fast."
Everybody on this team is also bursting with muscle, and power remains Michigan's hole card. Like when the score is 71-71 and the good shots aren't dropping—on comes the roll of drums and that Anvil Chorus. Boom, boom, boom.