The way defenses are operating these days," says SMU Coach Doc Hayes, "the other team starts, picking you up when you walk out of the hotel lobby on the way to the field house."
Hayes is barely exaggerating the case. He is referring to the amazing popularity of a technique that is sweeping college basketball—the pressing defense and especially the zone press. Twice UCLA has used this shattering weapon to win the NCAA championship, and now every coach in the country is either planning to use it or worrying about how to beat it, or both. Even the pros, who have a rule outlawing all zone defenses, are copying it.
The pressing defense is not a new basketball concept. Back in 1952 Coach Phog Allen's Kansas team won the NCAA title with it. So did San Francisco in 1955 and 1956, California in 1959 and Loyola of Chicago in 1963. What is new is the way UCLA has used it. Soft-spoken, genteel Coach John Wooden has, first, installed his zone as UCLA's basic style; it is not just a sometime tactic when all else fails. In addition, it is thoroughly integrated with the UCLA offense, so much so that it is hard to say where defense stops and offense begins.
What makes the zone so intriguing is that it does not take a big man like a Russell or a superstar like a Robertson to make it work. The UCLA teams of the last two years were of average size and, though Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich are fine players, neither one is a Cousy, a Bradley or a West. Both teams, however, were made up of well-conditioned athletes, dedicated to a demanding philosophy of play through superb coaching.
December 6, 1965
In this age of remarkable shooters many a college coach, with the limited time available to him, has chosen to neglect defense. Why bother? is the theory; we can always outrun and outshoot our opponents. Forced to concede the efficacy of the UCLA system, these same coaches fall back on the notion that Wooden's success is all a matter of personnel. With Wooden's players, they say, we'd win the NCAA, and with a press, too. This is a pat answer, but it simply is not true. Through hard work, patience and intelligent use of talent, Wooden has won with the kind of players available nearly everywhere in the country today.
Wooden's preoccupation with the zone press did not come about accidentally or incidentally. Like many other coaches, he toyed with it for years, but used it mostly as a sudden "panic" defense when his team was behind in the late stages of a game. However, the idea of using it as a planned weapon intrigued Wooden, and he finally decided to take the gamble. Long before he actually began to use the defense, Wooden, with typical perseverance, taught his players fundamentals only and got them into top physical condition. Then he thoroughly schooled them in a man-to-man press.
That sounds like a curious way to approach a zone type of defense, but Wooden reasoned, "When a zone press is beaten, a team is in trouble if it cannot fall back and properly protect itself. By first working on the man-to-man press we learned how to fall back naturally when we had to."
Finally Wooden taught his players the zone. This was not a one-week or even a one-season affair. Over the years the Bruins mastered the exhausting technique, sharpening their reactions and learning to anticipate each other's moves. And each new group of players absorbed both the inspiration required and some of the technique itself from the older players. What developed was a zone press that kept the pressure on an opponent almost constantly. It irritated, harassed and confused, and worked so well in 1963-'64 that UCLA won 30 straight and crushed Duke in the NCAA final. Last year Wooden changed his defensive alignment to put still more pressure on the offense. He moved a man up the baseline to play the opponent making the inbounds pass. The effect was devastating, because opponents then had trouble even getting the ball into play. But the essential qualities of the press were the same—quickness, precision and extreme confidence in execution—as Michigan sadly learned in the national championship playoff last March. For this season Wooden plans other changes. "If we don't change," he says, "coaches will soon figure out how to lick it."
Basically, the press, whether it is full-court, three-quarters, half-court, 2-2-1, 2-1-2, 3-2, 4-1 or UCLA's 3-1-1, is an attacking defense. Its immediate aim is to cause an otherwise good team to panic. It is designed to upset the rhythm of the enemy offense, create instant confusion and force errors. When it succeeds, it can overcome a 10-point deficit in minutes. In UCLA's 3-1-1 the defense forms immediately after UCLA scores a field goal or a foul shot. The center plays the out-of-bounds passer tight, the guards protect the areas on either side and one man—usually the quickest and with the best reactions—assumes a position midway between the baseline and midcourt, ready to intercept a medium pass. The safety man lines up deep to guard against the long pass and to protect against penetration. When the opponents do put the ball into play UCLA usually will double-team the first receiver, trying to harass him into a fumble or into throwing the ball away.
Occasionally UCLA will permit the first pass, offering only token resistance, and retreat upcourt into a more conventional defense. Then, when the floor position suits them, the Bruins revert to their swarming and double-teaming. Often the swift change of pace upsets the opposition, and the panic is on.
The zone press does not always work, of course. Because of its concentration on the ball rather than the man it is a gambling defense, and once beaten it often results in an easy field goal for the other team. But more often than not it at least succeeds in upsetting a planned attack. At best it creates panic. Either way, it sets the tempo for the game.
"Before the presses came along, the offensive team always dictated the court action," says Iowa Coach Ralph Miller, one of the earliest advocates of the full-court defense when he coached at Wichita East High School in the late '40s. "The defense had to wait to see what the offense was going to do. But now the defenses are forcing the issue." Pete Newell, who coached the California team that won the NCAA championship with a press, cites other advantages: "The zone press promotes an unselfish style of play. It does not emphasize individuals on offense alone. There is great squad appeal in this type of defense; it is a builder of team morale. The zone press is like a boxing pattern in which the boxer refuses to allow his opponent to get set, but stays in close, leans on him and makes him tire in the late stages."
What Loyola's George Ireland likes about it is its effect on the big man. "The zone press is basketball's first successful attempt at neutralizing the big man," says Ireland. "If George Mikan were playing today, I doubt if he would be nearly as effective as he was in his time. I don't think Mikan was agile enough to handle the press."
"It's the most effective defensive weapon in use today," claims Michigan's Dave Strack. "But you just have to have the quick, strong players to make it work. And they can't be lazy. The game is played at full speed all over the court, and every player must be ready to go all the time. The coach must be sold on the press, and then the players and the coach have to live and die with it."
Since Wooden and his players are living very well with it, the press, regardless of its disadvantages, will be the fashion for some time. At clinics and informal bull sessions last summer, more hours were spent on the press than on any other subject. At the Clinic of Champions held in Kansas City for 210 coaches, it was the only subject. Clinics usually list a dozen coaching problems. This is welcome news to Wooden and other coaches who plan to use some type of press this season. "That's the main value of it," says Wooden. "The more worried coaches are about it, the better it works."
Ohio State's Fred Taylor, who has had excellent results against the press—he calls it "the rat game"—goes at the problem analytically. "There are several things you have to know about a press before you can attack it," he says. "Like why are they pressing? Does it complement the offense or become a total offense, the way UCLA works it? Then you have to determine the type of press, its zone alignment and coverage of key spots. Does it become man-to-man in the second line? Do they put pressure on the ball out of bounds? Sometimes a pressing team wants you to have the ball inbounds and they play it soft. That gets the clock going. Then they swarm you. In other setups they'll wait for you to come to them in a roadblock-type defense. Finally, you have to compare your own team to the opponent."
Once all this is determined, Taylor says, "there are countless avenues of attack, but first we try to bypass as many defensive men as quickly as possible. We'll look for the long pass. If it's a true zone press, we'll try to eliminate a couple of defenders in a hurry. Secondly, our basic premise is to get into the heart of the defense. Penetrate and get back out, because the ball draws a crowd. Then it boils down to the pre-game planning, whether you're going to try to ram it down their throats if you beat the original press or set up and try to make them play half-court defense. The crux of beating the press is the way you determine what your personnel can do. You have to decide quickly whether or not you can ram it or if you must set up. But do it your way, not your opponent's way."
Taylor will know soon enough whether his way works. His Bucks will try to handle UCLA's "rat game" this Friday in Los Angeles.
The most important requisite, agrees California's Newell, is for a team to have a plan of attack. "If a coach does not provide a plan," he says in his book Basketball Methods, "he should not expect his players to react properly. The best way to force a pressure defense to retreat is to have the threat of men cutting to the basket all the time."
When Newell was coaching, he always designated a forward or center to take the ball out of bounds. "This was done for two reasons," he says. "A smaller player often has trouble passing over his defensive man, and his vision upcourt is impaired by the defensive man. Also we could more easily determine if the defense was playing man-to-man or zone. Next, we wanted to create a passing lane for the in bounds passer. One guard lined up approximately 15 feet from the baseline, head on to the player taking the ball out of bounds. He had the opportunity of breaking in either direction to create a passing lane. The other guard was parallel to the first guard on the opposite side of the court for an alternate lead. The two remaining men went upcourt, one on either side. They hesitated at the center line, to receive a long pass or to move back to help if needed.
"The out-of-bounds man passed to a guard, then moved into the lane for a return pass. One deep man cut back to meet the ball while the other guard cut upcourt. The player with the ball then had the option of passing to the deep man coming back or the guard heading upcourt."
Theoretically, this causes the pressure defense to spread, and when it does it is licked.
Howie Dallmar of Stanford is probably more familiar with the UCLA press than most coaches, because he has to face it twice a season in the AAWU. "The offensive problems are twofold," he says. "First, teams have to organize for the throw-in, and then they have to regroup to take the ball upcourt. Some teams, on the initial pass, like to have the guard throw upcourt to either forward. But they must be very careful, because the zone press can quickly adjust to 2-2-1, with both defensive forwards rotating to cover the long pass.
"Others like to flood an area to overload the zone. But once the ball is in, you face another problem—bringing it from back court to front court through the meat grinder. For this you can use a 3-2 attack, with the two guards and your most active forward bringing up the ball, or the more standard 2-3. In either case, the idea is to pass through the zone with a minimum amount of dribbling."
Kansas State's Tex Winter, on the other hand, does not believe in setting up definite play patterns against a press. "The defense can too easily size them up and block the passing lanes," he claims. "If you can execute the skills of the game while moving fast you are difficult to press successfully. What I want to do is outpressure the pressure. A fast-breaking team is best suited for this. I want fast passes rather than a dribble, but if no pass is open, then I like a quick dribble to escape a possible double-team trap.
"I tell my center and forwards to keep the pressure on their defensive men by continuously working behind them toward the offensive basket. But if they see a guard in trouble, they must be alert to come back and help out, the forward on the ball side first. He keeps coming until he gets a pass or is within 15 feet of the ball and has not received a pass. Then he should reverse quickly and head upcourt fast for a possible long pass over the heads of the defenders." A few of these for baskets, Winter figures, will soon discourage any press.
"My theory," says Michigan's Strack, "is to run with the ball, and despite what happened to us in the UCLA game last season I still think the zone press is vulnerable to quick basketball. What we tried to do against UCLA was to get the ball to our strongest man, Cazzie Russell, and have Bill Buntin go to mid-court and hook back to help." (Interestingly enough, many press advocates believe it works best of all against a team with a star like Cazzie Russell. Says Harry Lancaster, Adolph Rupp's astute assistant at Kentucky, "A Russell will take the zone press as a challenge and try to beat it singlehanded, even if he has to try to dribble through it. This is the worst thing to use against the press. We want to hold the dribble to a minimum. But a guy like Russell may try to go all the way with it. A poorer player, with less confidence, will be afraid of getting trapped by the zone press. He won't want to handle the ball and will get rid of it quickly. That's the thing to do.")
One thing that has contributed to the recent success of pressing defenses, says Providence's Joe Mullaney, is the lack of good ball handlers in the game today. "A press takes advantage of this lack," he adds. "Some teams have one, or maybe two, ball handlers, but they must get rid of the ball sometime and eventually the weak men on your team have to touch it. That's when you're in trouble. You just can't bury a couple of bad ball handlers against a zone press." (One beneficial result of the trend to presses may be a return to thorough grounding in ball-handling fundamentals by coaches.)
A man-to-man press is really no problem, says Mullaney, because "any kid who can put the ball on the ground will easily beat it. Everybody just clears out to let him operate one-on-one. But, regardless of the type of press we have to face, we teach our players one theory for attacking it. There are no set patterns, because zones, even presses, bend so much that a player must be flexible enough to adjust quickly to any pattern. We want to split the defensive men, always giving them the problem of moving to us. Also we want to spread the defense and then get to open areas with the ball. The first receiver should be our best ball-handling guard, and if he is a good one he will escape the first double-team in backcourt. After that he heads upcourt on one side, almost inviting another double-team, with the other guard trailing on the other side at about a 45° angle. If the first man finds himself one-on-one, he tries to beat his opponent on the dribble. If he is shut off by a double-team, he tries to shoot the gap between it with a pass, or passes off to his trailer, who is in the only open area." But, admits Mullaney, this can only work when you have the ball handlers.
Iowa's Miller is sold on the aggressive approach. "To combat attack, you must use more attack," he says. "But it does not have to be reckless. It can be careful, though not cautious, because caution implies fear, and fear is fatal to any offense. I don't think it matters too much what kind of specific offense you use against a zone press. The best way to attack it is with a passing game. When you dribble the ball, the defense simply moves with it and the defense's form remains intact. Coach Phog Allen's theory is as sound now as it was in the 1920s, and I subscribe to it: 'Pass the ball to a man in the open and then move to a new position yourself.' "
Notre Dame's Johnny Dee favors the bounce pass out to the first man. He thinks there is less chance for an interception that way. "The basic fundamental of the zone press is that it is going to play the ball," he says. "So we want to overload the zone and try to set up screens to break a receiver loose. I bring a third man to the ball to get four against three in the backcourt."
Louisville's Peck Hickman warns, "The team that presses the panic button against the zone press is the team that gets whipped by it. So it is of primary importance to retain your poise. For instance, if one of our big men is shut off by two guards, we tell him to take the five-second penalty of a jump ball rather than throw a bad pass. Then he still has a chance to control the jump. That's better than giving up two points. Technically, we will try for area passes—passes into specific areas designated beforehand—and avoid throwing the cross-court pass. We also will screen to get receivers free from a defender, and we want our men to be cutting at angles at all times."
Loyola's Ireland, who uses the press himself, says he is not worried about it at all: "We had no trouble handling the UCLA press last year. We only lost the ball three times because of the press and picked up about six to eight baskets against it. We would have lost the ball three times against any defense. It's easier to crack a pressing defense than an ordinary one, because the defense must cover more floor area."
A corollary to this view is the opinion of Villanova's Jack Kraft that "the team that presses will often get upset if this tactic is turned against it. You'll see it happen many times—throw a tough zone against a pressing team and they'll panic." Kraft, highly respected by coaches for his well-coached squads, also takes positions directly opposed to those generally accepted on three points: use of the dribble, passing and avoidance of the sideline areas. He encourages his players to dribble the ball. "The first thing we want to do is break down their front line and then attack the basket under normal fast-break conditions," he says. "The less passing you do the less chance there is for losing the ball. I like my best ball handler to bring the ball up along the sidelines, because that makes it more difficult for the middle man to double-team. I keep my other guard behind the ball as a trailer for a safety pass, and if he gets the ball his move is to the other side. What this does is spread the middle man so that we can get the ball to the middle from the sideline. When we arrive there, then we have three-on-two, and that's the way we want to be against a zone press. That should finish it.
"The second phase of our play—and the most difficult to get across to our players—is that you must attack the basket quickly. We don't want to give the opposition time to regroup into a normal defense. But you'd better have the ball handlers against the press. If you haven't—forget it. Don't even show up."
Because he agrees with that last statement and possibly because he is a frequent user of the press himself, DePaul's Ray Meyer spends more time preparing to meet it than most other coaches. Hoping to develop player confidence as well as technique, he devotes two full weeks of preseason practice as well as part of every week during the season to playing against it. Meyer has several drills specifically designed to combat presses. His men work diligently on dribbling, releasing the passer and staying away from the man with the ball. "The idea behind that maneuver," he explains, "is to isolate the man with the ball in a one-on-one situation. It is very difficult for one man to take the ball away from another without fouling."
Meyer welcomes a zone press because, he says, "We operate on the theory that we can pass faster than our opponents can run." His rules are: keep the ball in the middle to avoid being trapped on the sideline; once you lose your dribble, get rid of the ball because you can be double-teamed; do not bring your man close to the man with the ball.
So go the arguments. Every coach in the country has an opinion, all the way from Frank McGuire's "Just get better ballplayers" to complicated maneuvers involving overloads and split-second screens. It is all music to John Wooden. "As long as so many coaches feel there are so many ways to beat the zone press," he says, "that means no one is really sure. It is evidence that the press is hard to beat."
AN ATTACK FOR ALL PRESSES
THE BASIC SETUP: Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and his assistant, Harry Lancaster, believe any zone press can be successfully challenged by one attack. In its three options (right) only the cutting angles of the players vary. It begins (above) with the offense overloaded to one side. Guard G1 can make the inbounds pass to any one of three men—the other guard, G2, who is the team's best ball handler (1), or either forward: Fl, angling toward the ball (2), or F2, hooking back from midcourt (3). Everyone keys on G2. When he breaks, the others break simultaneously. After the first pass G1 heads upcourt while the center (C) cuts cross-court to support ensuing action.
FIRST OPTION: At the break, if G2 is clear, the first pass (1) goes to him. He quickly dribbles to the top of the foul circle and stops. He is now in position to whip a return pass (2) to G1, who has rushed up the right side after making the inbounds pass. If that route is closed he passes (2A) to F2, who, failing to receive the first pass, has reversed his field and cut back upcourt on the left side. Fl is the trailer, available for a safety pass in the event that G2 is hit with a double-team. C continues his arc toward the basket. "We want our men in center court near the circle," explains Lancaster, "so they will have passing lanes and won't be trapped on the sides."
SECOND OPTION: G2 angles toward the passing lane and continues across it while Fl moves in to take the inbounds pass (1). Fl then dribbles slightly to the right of the foul circle. At this point he has two choices. He can return the pass (2) to G1, who has cut up the right side after making the inbounds pass, or he can pass (2A) to F2, who has again reversed direction and cut upcourt on the left side. Then Fl moves upcourt behind the play to create a possible three-on-two situation, which is what the offense wants against any zone press. The center's pattern remains the same, across the middle and up the right side. Type of press dictates which option is used.
THIRD OPTION: G1 fakes to both G2 and Fl as they cut across the passing lane toward the left of the court, and passes (1) to F2, angling to the ball at the top of the foul circle from his original position at midcourt. F2 dribbles briefly toward the center line, and now he has two options. He can pass the ball (2) to G2, racing up the left sideline, or (2A) to G1, who took off along the right sideline in what coaches call a "banana inside" pattern after making the inbounds pass. Rid of the ball, F2 moves right or left, behind the receiver—again hoping to force a three-on-two situation. "If the first two passes are sound," says Lancaster, "the press is usually beaten."