THE NIGHTMARE: HOW TO STOP THE GOOD BIG MAN

December 05, 1966

"Basketball is one sport," says Jack Gardner of Utah in the Heisman Trophy of understatements, "where the tall man has found a place." The place is usually right under the basket, and the big guy has the ball—which is what haunts Gardner and his colleagues who have to cope with the problem.

All the thinking on the subject ultimately leads to two risky alternatives. In the first, as Temple's Harry Litwack puts it, "you play him honestly—and you know he's going to get his 30 or 40 points." In other words, pretend the big guy is just another player on the opposition's roster. This is an excellent gambit if you have Bill Russell on your roster. Harry never has had Russell, so he knows this approach would cost him a pile of points. There are so many giants scattered around campuses these days, however, that many coaches are tempted to try the "honest" bit. What stops them is that their giant is seven feet of nonathletic gristle and the other team's is Lew Alcindor or someone nearly as good. So the first alternative—play him honestly—in most instances amounts to suicide.

The second is the one that affords coaches the opportunity to make X's and circles all over note pads, shirt cuffs, tablecloths and the blackboards of their dreams. A very few scorn this opportunity—phooey on collapsing zones and sagging mano a manos—preferring not to burden their young men with best-laid plans that tend to go the way Robert Burns asserted they do. "I tell my kids," says Paul Valenti of Oregon State, "not to worry too much about being organized. Just get in there and get around the big fellow, and if he gets that ball, make sure he has to throw it back out." This swarm-of-bees technique will stop the big man every time—from setting a scoring record, that is. But only rarely will it stop his team from winning—which is the idea. Abe Lemons, the Oklahoma City philosopher, describes the tactic and its failing in his own style. "I'm smart enough to handle any big man there is," says Abe. "I put one man in front of him, one in back, one on one side and one on the other, and then I tell the four of them to follow him around all night. Then me and the guy I got left, we can just sit back and watch those four other squirrels shoot us to death."

The trick, then, is to lay plans that do not attempt the impossible but have a reasonable chance for success, that try to cut off the big man from the ball, that isolate him from his teammates, that disrupt his team's normal patterns of behavior. Then you hope for the best. Fred Taylor of Ohio State explains the danger of expecting too much. "Look, if you're talking about a big man with Alcindor's capabilities," he says, "forget it. He is going to force you to go for a gimmicked-up game, and you just don't win consistently with gimmicks. But you can try for a one-shot deal—say, maybe for a half—in hopes that you'll cause momentary offensive problems and maybe promote a little confusion that will give you time to make nuisance changes. Then just pray that the game doesn't last too long."

"You have to use all sorts of tricks—stalls, sagging defenses and whatever else you can dream up," says John Benington of Michigan State. "Most teams will play some kind of a control game, something to lure the big man away from the basket. Then, whenever he turns around, somebody will fall down and look for the foul." The last move is not exactly cricket, of course, and it does not work very often either.

As Benington indicates, containing the big man is not just a matter of setting up an effective half-court defense. How a rival team plays on offense, the tempo it sets, often has considerable effect on how the giant's team plays its offense. Dave Strack of Michigan calls this "defensing the big man offensively." Bob Boyd, whose Southern California Trojans are the lucky devils who get first crack at Alcindor this Saturday, will not tip his hand, but he does hint at employing this strategy. "You have a chance if you throw the extreme game at them," he says. "Like maybe a blazing fast break. Then, if that fails, immediately become control-conscious and go into a virtual stall."

Once the big man's team gets the ball and brings it to mid-court, however, choosing a suitable defense becomes imperative. In the likely event that the guards have brought the ball that far and the big fellow is in the post, one choice is similar to football's tactic of rushing the passer. "We want to put tremendous pressure on those guards from the moment they get past mid-court," says Kentucky's Adolph Rupp. "We want to keep them so busy they can't set up the tall guy."

"If he normally gets the ball in the pivot 50 or 60 times in a game," says Syracuse's Fred Lewis, "we try to cut that in half. Harass the guards, work on them all the time, don't let up on them." Agreeing with all this, Michigan's Dave Strack brings up the special case that stumps everyone. "Of course," he says, "if it's Alcindor, he's so agile that he's capable of bringing the ball up himself and taking it right into the pivot without any help. What do you do then?" The best answer may be to fall back and at least avoid the three-point play.

Putting pressure on the big man inside by double-teaming him leaves the defense vulnerable at some point on the floor or at some stage in its movements. But the offensive team must be smart enough to spot the weakness and quick enough to attack it before the defenders adjust and cover up. This situation often leads to the kind of thrust-and-parry action that keeps spectators out of their seats and drives coaches out of their minds.

It can also bring the happiest of results for the defense, as it did when North Carolina met Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the NCAA finals in 1957. Carolina's Frank McGuire stationed the Tar Heels' biggest man, 6-foot-8 Joe Quigg, behind Wilt and put 6-foot-5 Lenny Rosenbluth directly in front of him in a 2-1-2 zone. Kansas kept trying to get the ball in to Wilt and played directly into North Carolina's hands by stubbornly refusing to shoot from outside. Chamberlain was able to make only six shots and North Carolina won the title in triple overtime.

Conceding that the big man is going to get the ball on occasion, the defense should try to keep him from getting the ball where he wants it. "You just can't give him his normal number of shots from his favorite spot," Henry Iba of Oklahoma A&M says. "I've never seen a big man who didn't have a pet spot from which he liked to operate and you've got to move him out of it. You mass on him in that area. It means you have to take one of your players off the weakest offensive man. Sometimes that's hard to do, and if it doesn't work, you press at mid-court. If this is executed properly it will force him a step or two away from his preferred place."

The full-court press can have a similar effect. In addition, by harassing the guards, as DePaul's Ray Meyer says, "it stretches out the opponent's offense." Thus the game is turned more to the horizontal than the vertical plane, taking away some of the advantage of height. The press also forces longer passes that offer greater chance of interception, and when one occurs, the big man is usually far down the court, out of the play.

When coaches decide to double up on the tall threat, they favor some variation of a zone defense. The zone provides an automatic double-team, and has the added advantage of preserving position, so that the big man is more easily blocked out on rebounds (diagrams opposite). Sagging or sloughing off in a man-to-man defense does not assure that position.

The 1-3-1 seems to be the most popular big-man zone now. Even Frank McGuire, now at South Carolina, whose 2-1-2 cut off Chamberlain, opts for the 1-3-1. "Either that," he says, "or we'll use a sloughing defense in which we play the ball tight and drop off a man without the ball to play in front of the low post man."

Adolph Rupp uses much the same ploy, though he prefers words like "trap" or "helping" defense instead of zone. "What we do," the Baron explains, "is compel the offense to pass in four lanes and then we try to anticipate where the ball will go. We put our center between the man with the ball and the basket, so that the attacking team has to pass over him. We also float the opposite-side defensive man into an area where he can help out on the pivotman."

"I'm not a zone-defense man," Bob Boyd emphasizes, "but against a big guy there's a need for a bastard-type defense. One way is the 1-3-1. But you need a real quick point man, two forwards who can sag right and left to help out and protect the flank—and yet be quick enough to board the ball. And you need a middle man who has the bulk and size to be able to front that 7-footer and front him well. The back man has an impossible task. He has to play directly behind the monster, and he also must have the quickness, tenacity and the drive to guard the baseline against the corner jump. Whenever that ball rotates, you hope you can maintain the 1-3-1. If it breaks down—Katie bar the door."

Though it sounds silly, or even suicidal, there are still a number of coaches who like to play man-for-man against the giants. One who does, and whose teams often did a creditable job on Chamberlain, is Kansas State's Tex Winter. "Most of the time," Winter says, "I'll play him one-on-one and forget about what he scores. Sometimes, you know, a big scoring splurge by one guy may even help you by detracting from the other players' performances. It can distract them from their offensive jobs. They'll start going for the basket and keep looking for that big man, trying to force the ball to him."

Joe Mullaney of Providence, who lost one of the country's best big men, Dexter Westbrook, because of poor grades, believes the problem has been overemphasized. "The value of having a 6-foot-10 player has been lessened," Mullaney says, "because of the contact permitted by the rules. In the old days you barely touched a man and—bing, it was a foul. Now a smaller man can play a bigger man. He can get away with much more contact."

What little consolation that offers on defense is more than offset, many believe, by the increasing difficulty teams encounter when they take the offense against a big man. Following Russell's inspired lead, even the least agile of the giants has learned how to block shots. A coach has to combat the fear of such occurrences, as well as the blocks themselves. "You just can't permit that big fellow to intimidate your players," says California's Athletic Director Pete Newell, who coached the Bears to a national title in 1959. "It can take three or four games for a player to get over having his shots blocked. You have to work hard at screening the big man out and keeping him on the opposite side from where the shot is being taken."

And if there is disagreement about how to beat the big man there is just as much argument about how to treat him. "You never want to make him mad," Newell advises. "If you rough him up—kick him, claw him, elbow him, grab at his pants—he will react by playing harder against you. When we played Wilt we went out of our way to pat him on the back, congratulate him on a good play and just generally try to keep him happy and contented. You know, that made him purr like a big cat, and he never really hurt us much."

George Ireland of Loyola, another coach of a national championship team, takes exactly the opposite tack. "Let's face it," Ireland says flatly, "you have to muscle the hell out of a big man." Some coaches think you should chat with the big man, distract him with idle conversation. Others feel the silent treatment will upset him. Red Auerbach suggests sympathizing with the big fellow's teammates, hinting that they must be tired of their roles as spear carriers in a one-man show. Take your pick.

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TWO MAN-TO-MAN APPROACHES

Michigan State's John Benington employs either a sagging or a pressure strategy. In the first (below left), Benington's center (5) is stationed behind his opponent, and his teammates play their men loosely to block the passing lanes into the pivot. The man with the ball (D) then is faced with the problem of trying to pass through a crowd. If he gets the ball to the big man, the defensive guards (1 and 2) and the weak-side forward (3) immediately collapse (arrows) on the giant, trying to prevent a shot or force a held ball. Using pressure (right), Benington puts his center (5) in front of the big man, with the weak-side forward (3) in position to help out from behind. The other forward (4) plays the man with the ball tightly, while the guard (2) is on top of his opponent. B> putting pressure both on the ball and the offensive player closest to it, the defense discourages the easy pass and the outside shot. But, as Benington points out, "the offense will not stand still. The defense must adjust constantly from these planned positions."

THE TENNESSEE 'QUICKSAND' DEFENSE

Coach Ray Mears never fails to throw tough defensive alignments at his rivals, regardless of the talent available to him. He used this one last year on Vanderbilt's All-America center, Clyde Lee, and it forced Lee outside, held him to only eight shots at the basket and one field goal. The "quicksand" is actually, a 1-3-1 half-court trap defense that starts from the conventional setup (below left), with the best defensive rebounder (5) at the top of the foul circle. This defender always plays in front of the opponents' big man. As the ball goes to the side (center). the wingman (3) and point man (1) double-team the receiver. This pressure on the ball, plus No. 5's fronting position, makes it impossible for anything but a lob pass to reach the big man. If it does reach him, he will be double-teamed immediately, No. 4 joining No. 5. If the ball does not go in, No. 4 and No. 2 hold to their assignments of guarding the right side and the foul lane. When the ball goes deep into the corner (right) and the big man sinks into a low post. No. 5 moves with him, and No. 2 is the rear guard. To maintain pressure on the ball, No. 4 hustles over to join No. 3. The offensive team's chances of escaping the trap or getting off a short, accurate pass are diminished in proportion to the speed of the defenders. The quicksand, like most zone variations, is vulnerable to good outside shooting, but some risk is unavoidable in this kind of defense. And if the defenders are alert, they will force lob passes even to outside men, and these are the most susceptible to interception.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)