Last Thursday afternoon at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, Wichita State, the Midwest regional champion, was out on the court for its last practice session before the final rounds of the NCAA championship began. The Shockers were going at three-quarter speed, scrimmaging against their own full-court press. The next night Wichita was to play UCLA, the defending national champion and, by acclamation, the exemplar of the press. Edgar Lacey, UCLA's star sophomore forward, ambled by with the rest of his team, on the way to the locker room. Lacey paused for a moment. Then, neither to his teammates nor to the Wichita players in particular but loud enough for both, he said very affectionately, as if talking about a good friend, "Watch the press, baby. Watch the press."
Lacey's regard for his team's fearsome weapon is well-founded. The press has made UCLA basketball famous and has brought Coach John Wooden inquiries from 700 other coaches, all of them anxious to learn how the Bruins do it. This year it has turned up in countless variations around the country, but apparently John Wooden does not answer his mail as well as he coaches. No one runs the press like UCLA.
The press is really a fairly simple response to an urgent need, a tactic analogous to that of a boxer who finds himself up against a slugger in a small ring. The more of the ring the boxer uses, the better chance he has to win. So he keeps the action moving all around the ring, counting on his speed and quickness to overcome his bigger, more powerful opponent. That is what the press does in basketball. The smaller, quicker team forces the bigger, slower team to play from one end of the court to the other, to the latter's disastrous disadvantage. That is what UCLA does, and that is the way it beat Wichita on Friday and Michigan on Saturday and won the NCAA championship for the second year in a row.
Wichita was no match at all for UCLA, but powerful Michigan was, and in the first few minutes of the final game on Saturday night the Wolverines were in command. Their big men—Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin, Oliver Darden—controlled the rebounds, and the whole team shot with remarkable accuracy from all over the court. With eight minutes gone, they led 20-13. UCLA was tense, and its All-America guard and floor leader, Gail Goodrich, was missing his shots. Co-captain Keith Erickson had to leave the game because of a leg injury, and Lacey was playing Erickson's safety man position on the press.
Then came a typical UCLA explosion. Kenny Washington, Fred Goss and Lacey hit jump shots. Goodrich sank a free throw. The Bruins took charge on the boards. Russell managed one basket for Michigan in the midst of it all, but Washington and Doug McIntosh came flying out of nowhere to block other Michigan shots. And triggering it all, making this offensive display possible, was the press. Suddenly, twice within a minute, the Wolverines could not even get the ball upcourt. They struggled to break through, and the blocks and interceptions followed. "The crowd was yelling louder and louder each time we did something," McIntosh said later. "But this one time I wasn't able to really put any pressure on Cazzie. Then I looked, and I saw the ball just dribble off his leg. I just watched that ball dribble off his leg, and all I could think was: 'Isn't this sweet? We're going to win.' "
UCLA was still behind at that moment, but McIntosh's hunch was correct. The tempo of the game had changed completely. In a three-minute period just before half time, UCLA scored 10 points and held Michigan to one. At intermission the Bruins led 47-34. Against perhaps the best rebounding team in college basketball, they actually were ahead in rebounds 19-17 and continued to control the playing style of the game throughout the second half, as Goodrich put on a superb display of ball handling. ("That little devil," Michigan Coach Dave Strack called him, admiringly.) Time and again Goodrich slithered through a maze of tall Wolverines to score with twisting hooks and layups. He hit long one-hand jumpers. He led the UCLA fast break. And with his teammates he hounded Michigan mercilessly on defense. But despite his individual brilliance, it was the UCLA defense, and especially the press, that won this game as it had won virtually every game for two successive championship teams.
John Wooden first used his zone press when he was a high school coach years ago, but for a long time he felt that it could not succeed in college competition. He decided to take a chance with it two years ago when he had what he thought was the right material. ("All I am asked about," Dave Strack said last week, "is the UCLA press. But anybody can press. To make it work you need the personnel. The UCLA press is mostly the UCLA players.")
UCLA's win over Michigan was especially impressive because Erickson's contribution was relatively minor. Erickson has often been described as the most valuable man in the press because of his size and mobility. Last Wednesday, however, he apparently pulled a muscle in his left leg, and aggravated it on Thursday and in pregame drills Friday. He scored only two points in the Wichita game (as compared with 28 and 29 in the regional the previous week), and he limped noticeably. On Saturday morning he had ultrasonic treatment and he was determined to play, but in the game he was bothered more by a tight bandage than by the injury itself. By the time he had loosened the bandage on the bench (after playing only the first five minutes), his substitute, Kenny Washington, had taken charge on the court.
Washington (no kin to his great namesake, a UCLA star of the '30s) is a pleasant young man who specializes in jumping higher than Valeri Brumel and in coming off the bench to star in NCAA championship games. Last year in the final against Duke, he left the bench to score 26 points. This year he scored only 17 (seven for nine from the floor), but he grabbed five rebounds and did a good job of harassing Cazzie Russell.
Russell made 28 points and played well as always, but the Wolverines had a hard time getting the ball to him in close. As in the previous night's semifinal game against Princeton, there seemed no pattern at all to the Michigan offense. Only once in each game did Michigan even run the play that opponents refer to as the Wolverines' "bread-and-butter." This calls for Russell to slide off Buntin at a high post, move underneath and look for a pass. If he has not been able to shake his man, he breaks out for a quick little jumper behind a screen set by Oliver Darden. The one time Russell tried it against UCLA was early in the game, but Darden was called for blocking and Michigan never repeated the maneuver. Instead, the Wolverines depended almost entirely on their muscle and the long shot. Both worked against Princeton; neither of them was reliable after the UCLA defense took hold.
One coach described what happened as a tag-team match between "five matadors and five bulls," and when Strack refused to alter the character of the contest, he left himself open to some second-guessing. He never abandoned the bulls, even when it was obvious that they were being cut into hamburger while still on the hoof.
Poor ball handling and playmaking betrayed Michigan the most, and this was just as true the night before against Princeton. In that game, the Michigan power was more than sufficient compensation, however, and Princeton was routed on the boards, 56-34. Still, it was the only game of the weekend that was close—until Bill Bradley, in foul trouble for all of the second half, fouled out with five minutes to go. When Bradley picked up his fourth personal barely a minute into the second half, Princeton was forced to go into an unfamiliar zone defense to protect him. Michigan tore through it when Princeton threatened to close the gap, and the Tigers were never able to challenge seriously.
Bradley finished his career the next night with a marvelous performance against Wichita. The score, 118-82 for Princeton, set all kinds of records, and so did Bradley. He made 58 points (22 for 29 from the floor, 14 for 15 from the free-throw line) in as satisfying a climax as could be hoped for in a consolation game. Referee Bob Korte, who had called most of the fouls on Bradley both nights, visited the Princeton locker room after the game. He sought out Bradley and shook his hand. "I wanted to tell you," he said, "that that was the greatest exhibition I ever saw. It was a pleasure to watch, and I wanted to thank you."
The game that followed was, in its way, an even more superb team performance by UCLA. The Bruins, confident to the edge of cockiness, were as poised a team of collegians as ever has been assembled. Goodrich was even composed during the ritualistic cutting down of the nets once the game was over, as if UCLA had practiced that, too. At least part of the reason for such cool demeanor and calculating efficiency can be credited to the UCLA players' long association, individually and collectively, with victory. They find it more familiar than surprising. Goodrich, Goss, Washington and McIntosh all played on championship high school teams. Lynn, playing on three levels of competition in the last three years, has been with teams that lost only four games in this period.
Erickson is more of a Johnny-come-lately winner, but he is making up for it. Neither he nor his high school team was much of a basketball success, and in junior college at El Camino he played against the UCLA freshman with so little distinction that Goodrich had no recollection of Erickson when the latter showed up as a varsity teammate the following year. But Erickson is a volleyball ace, a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, and they play volleyball, with two-man teams, all up and down the Southern California beaches on weekends. Many of the teams always have the same players as partners, but Erickson switches around. And they say that the winning team, at San Diego or on up the coast, is usually the one with Erickson. Volleyball, like basketball, is a game of precision leaps and bounds.
Finally, there is Edgar Lacey, the sophomore who suddenly began to realize his great potential in the last few weeks. "I really wanted this one," he said, smiling and gratified but quite calm after the Michigan game. "The thing is I've always been a loser. In high school we blew the big game, the finals, two years in a row, and I didn't want that again. I stayed awake till 3 o'clock last night, not just thinking, but really worrying, worrying that somehow I'm going to blow it again. I'm glad I've got a big one now."
UCLA, Johnny Wooden and the others have two now. And one of the first things Assistant Coach Jerry Norman said to Wooden after all the players assembled back at the bench, net cut down and in hand, was: "Well, all we have to do now is get to the finals next year, and then just bring in Kenny Washington to see that we win a third one."
UCLA'S stifling press often takes the course shown in the diagrams below. It begins (left) after the Bruins have scored and the other team takes the ball out of bounds. McIntosh harasses the man with the ball, while Goodrich and Goss move to guard against the easy inbounds pass. Because a longer pass is always risky, this occasionally leads to a failure to put the ball into play within five seconds, and UCLA gets possession. When the inbounds pass is successful (center) McIntosh joins Goodrich to double-team the receiver, either to tie him up or force him into a bad pass. Meanwhile, Lacey and Erickson shade over to the side where the ball is. This action frequently induces a long pass to the free man upcourt, but because Goodrich and McIntosh have their hands up and are jumping, the pass must be a soft lob. This allows Erickson time to change direction (right) and intercept the ball.