"O.K., everybody, stop shooting, come over here and listen up. You've had your fun. Now we're going to work on defense."
"Defense! Ah, coach, we don't want to play no defense. We want to score, coach. How about a little four-on-one fast-break action?"
"No, not now, men. It's time to work on the Big D. Switching. Double-teaming. Getting back. Slide-stepping. Taking the charge."
December 3, 1979
"Hey, coach, I just remembered I've got a term paper to write. Check you later."
"Uh, coach, the trainer says I shouldn't work too hard because of my injured knee...er, elbow. I better sit this drill out."
"You guys stay right where you are. It doesn't do any good to score 100 points if the other team scores 101."
"But, coach, I can't get no pub' playing defense. I can't get no girls, either. And what about my pro contract? I think I'll just slide-step over there and work on my running-twisting-bring-the-crowd-to-its-feet slam dunk. I'm a star, coach. Stars don't play no defense."
Although this attitude surely exists among some players, it is definitely not shared by the five young men striking defensive poses on pages 40 and 41. They're stoppers, and they're proud of it. On the average, they each scored an unspectacular 13.8 points a game last season but played important roles on teams that won 74.1 % of their games. They were brought together to emphasize a fact generally lost on most followers of the game: good defense is at least as important as good offense.
In a book to be published next spring, Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina writes, "Basketball's offensive skills are easily recognized by the press and spectators. Unfortunately, defensive dedication goes unnoticed. We try to offset this by constantly praising (both publicly and privately) good defensive play. I rarely find it necessary to mention our leading scorer during a postgame interview. Instead, I make it a point to highlight players whose defensive performances helped our team. Our players are also tangibly rewarded for their defensive efforts with playing time."
Smith is not alone in recognizing that defense has a serious public-relations problem. "Defense is the dirty work of basketball," says Illinois Coach Lou Hen-son. Rutgers' Tom Young adds, "Nobody notices a defensive player unless he's stealing the ball—that is, nobody except his coach, his teammates and the guy he's guarding."
Good defensive players are invariably the result of good defensive coaching, because, unlike hotshot scorers, they are made, not born. Over the years, the most successful defensive coaches have included man-to-man tacticians like Hank Iba of Oklahoma A&M and Pete Newell of California, and zone specialists like Harry Litwack of Temple and UCLA's John Wooden, who popularized a devastating 1-2-1-1 zone press. Current coaches often cited for their defensive acumen are Smith, Indiana's Bobby Knight, Princeton's Pete Carril, Oregon State's Ralph Miller and Michigan State's Jud Heathcote. The Spartans won the NCAA championship in Salt Lake City last March with a 2-3 matchup zone—which differs from a standard zone in that the man with the ball is guarded much more aggressively—just when detractors of the zone, and they are legion these days, were about convinced it could not be done. Lou Henson calls it "the best zone I've ever seen."
For all their expertise, few of these coaches would agree on the best defense to play or the best way it should be taught. But they probably would concur with Joe Lapchick, the late St. John's coach, who once wrote, "The 'great' teams, the teams that win championships, are those that play good defense. And the coaches of the great teams are dedicated to the teaching of defensive play." Lapchick felt that a good defensive player possessed "pride, desire, determination, hustle, alertness, aggressiveness and resourcefulness in applying continuous concentration."
These are precisely the attributes of the players pictured on the preceding pages. Darnell Valentine of Kansas is so adept at defense that his coach, Ted Owens, encourages him to "disrupt the other team's entire offense. He's free to gamble when he wants, switch off, double-team and defend away from the ball. We want him to use his exceptional sense of anticipation to go for steals and interceptions." Valentine, a personable 6'2" junior enrolled in pre-law, takes to the task with gusto. "Defense is something you have to be determined to play every game," he says, "and a good defensive player should never have a bad one. When I take another man's rock [ball] one-on-one in the open court, that says I'm doing my job better than he is."
Valentine has become so proficient at making steals—he led the Big Eight with 3.1 per game last season—he has heard opponents tell him, "I'm not going to let you steal it from me." Valentine's answer is usually a swipe of the hand, a quick dribble and a layup at the other end.
While Valentine specializes in the steal, Roosevelt Bouie of Syracuse prefers the blocked shot. The 6'11" senior center is an easygoing sort until he steps on the court. Then he turns tiger. He rejected 81 last season and was the foundation of Coach Jim Boeheim's defense. "With Rosie, our philosophy has been to overplay people and gamble on going for the ball," Boeheim says. "We know Roosevelt is back there to keep people out of the path to the basket and to block shots."
Whether they are chasing the ball in the backcourt or rejecting it in the middle, all outstanding defenders are motivated by pride and driven by determination. "If I get scored on, it bothers me," says Rutgers Guard Kelvin Troy, a 6'5" junior whose ebullience is such that an opponent's field goal may be the only thing that gets his goat. Iowa Forward Kevin Boyle, a 6'6" sophomore, reflects his characteristic maturity when he says, "Hustle and determination are what set defensive players apart."
Rudy Woods of Texas A&M is so serious about his defense that the 6'11" sophomore center has been known to wag his finger at any opponent foolish enough to challenge him inside. But, of course, this may also have something to do with his brash personality. Even as a freshman, Woods didn't lack confidence on either end of the court.
Neil Bresnahan of Illinois, a 6'6" senior forward whose six older brothers all played in college, may not be as demonstrative as Woods, but Henson says his "burning desire to excel" is his most important defensive trait. Even more significant than his quickness, strength, court savvy and his natural intelligence—anything.
Mississippi's Elston Turner also thrives on difficult defensive challenges. The junior forward is often asked to match his 6'5" height against much taller opponents.
Although fans may think that steals and blocks are the most important aspects of good defense, they are by no means the best measures of defensive success—nor, in fact, is the number of points a team allows. A ball-control team will invariably surrender fewer points than one that plays a fast-paced offense, because a slow-down attack allows the opposition less possession time and, consequently, fewer opportunites to score. Most coaches prefer to judge their team's defense either by the opponents' field-goal shooting percentage or by their squad's scoring margin. The first statistic indicates a team's ability to force bad shots and contest good ones; the second takes into consideration the pace of the game.
An NCAA study put three defense-related stats into perspective by measuring the winning percentages of the top 25 teams in each category over a 10-season period. The 25 teams allowing the fewest average points won 63.3% of their games; the 25 with the best field-goal defense won 68.1%; and the 25 with the widest scoring margin won 73.7%. Only six teams rank in all three of the categories: Princeton, Marquette, UCLA, South Carolina, Toledo and Pennsylvania.
North Carolina deserves a place among the top defensive teams, although it does not rate high in two of the defensive categories. The figures produced by the NCAA show that, under Smith, the Tar Heels rank fourth in winning percentage and third in scoring margin, but a distant 59th in scoring defense and—unbelievable for a strong team—119th in field-goal defense. Nevertheless, coaches agree that North Carolina is excellent defensively, although this fact tends to be obscured statistically by its style of play.
Smith is a creator of new ideas and a popularizer of old ones. (You've no doubt heard of the four-corners offense.) In his 18 seasons he has won 75.2% of his games, which ranks him third among active coaches, and 16 ACC regular-season and tournament titles. His teams have reached the final four a total of five times. His 1971 Tar Heels won the NIT, and in 1976 he coached the U.S. to an image-restoring Olympic gold medal. Those are terrific credentials, but what've they got to do with defense?
A lot, because defense has been the cornerstone of the Tar Heels' success. "Smith is known for his offensive innovations," says Kansas' Owens, "but he teaches fine defense and gets results that are doubly impressive because he runs a quick-hitting offense, too." In fact, many a talented player has languished on the North Carolina bench because he failed to master Smith's defensive principles, and others have risen to stardom mainly because they did. The case studies are numerous: Walter Davis, the NBA Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, did not start his first six games as a Tar Heel freshman because he was slow to learn defense. On the other hand, Bobby Jones and John Kuester were recruited more for their defensive ability than anything else, and both have gone on to the NBA. But the ultimate defense success story at North Carolina was Dudley Bradley, who may have set a record last year when the Indiana Pacers chose him and his 9.2-point scoring average in the first round of the NBA draft.
The Tar Heels' latest star defender is Mike O'Koren, a 6'8" senior whom Smith calls the best all-round forward in the country. Last summer O'Koren started on the U.S.A.'s championship Pan-American team, and last season he led North Carolina in rebounds and assists, was second to Bradley in steals, with 46, and scored 14.8 points a game on 52% shooting from the field and 77% from the foul line. O'Koren brings savvy and dedication to his defensive play, not to mention the wholesome attitude that "defense is fun." He is particularly adept at what Smith calls "junk" defenses, like the run-and-jump. In that maneuver O'Koren leaves his man and rushes over to surprise the ball handler while that man's original defender moves on to someone else.
The run-and-jump—or "30"—defense is one of four in North Carolina's repertoire. The others are a pressure man-to-man, which is the primary defense, a zone and a combination man-to-man and double-teaming zone press. All come with variations and can be unleashed at any of three different places on the floor. "When you prepare to play North Carolina," says Young, whose Rutgers team must do just that this season, "you're going to have to handle just about every defense there is in basketball."
Generally, Smith prefers man-to-man after missed field goals, lost jump balls and steals; zones on inbounds plays underneath the defensive basket; and full-court pressure just about anytime. The quarterback on the floor calls any one of three predetermined defenses after a made field goal (not four, because Smith learned the hard way that too great a choice sometimes led to multiple defenses being played simultaneously).
Before Smith introduces a new technique to his team he usually holds a dry run at his summer camp. "I figure that if the 12- and 13-year-olds can pick it up, it shouldn't be too difficult for us," he says. That is where Smith's "40" defense originated. It starts out as a man, changes to the run-and-jump and moves on to a 2-2-1 zone press. Once a defensive technique becomes a regular part of the Tar Heels' game, Smith waits at least another year before divulging its intricacies at clinics.
Of course, there are hazards in this system. Smith admits that "we can't execute our secondary defenses as well as we do our primary one." And in 1973-74 he became so caught up in multiple-choice defenses that he tried to do too much. "I overcoached that year," he says.
Iowa Coach Lute Olson calls Smith "the greatest exponent of multiple defenses" in the country. And he's right, because Smith has been teaching the concept since the early '60s, longer than any other coach. Now that multiple defenses are the vogue, the days when a team used an old reliable defense throughout the game and fell back on a press only in moments of desperation are fast disappearing. But not without great opposition. John Wooden feels "the more defenses you try to play increases the likelihood that none of them are going to be strong." Bobby Knight still clings to his tenacious man-to-man, forswearing all others. Clemson's Bill Foster prefers the man-to-man, too, although he sometimes uses what he calls an "alumni zone" to satisfy the coaches in the stands.
Among the other leading coaches who use a multiple-defense system are Olson and Notre Dame's Digger Phelps. "If you play only one defense, you can play it very well," says Olson, "but if you meet a team that can kill that particular defense, you're in trouble." Phelps recalls winning an NCAA tournament game against DePaul in 1978 because the Blue Demons failed to recognize a defensive switch. "We shifted to a 1-3-1 zone, and they didn't pick it up right away," Phelps says. "We went up about 12 points before they adjusted and easily won what had been a tough game."
Smith has long favored multiple defenses, because he believes in "change just for the sake of change. That way the defense dictates to the offense, forcing the other team to adjust, instead of the reverse. It's like the baseball pitcher who mixes in off-speed stuff with his fastball. It keeps the batter guessing."
Even Smith's primary defense, the man-to-man, runs contrary to some old defensive tenets, but he feels adjustments were needed to keep up with basketball's advancing offensive skills. Instead of forcing play into the middle of the court, Carolina pressures to the outside. Instead of positioning himself in the classical manner between his man and the basket, a Tar Heel defender plays between his man and the ball, a tactic called "overplaying." Instead of emphasizing individual responsibility, Smith demands team play, helping out. "When we grade an individual's defensive performance," Smith says, "we do it on the basis of his execution of principles and not his man's scoring total."
With proper execution, North Carolina's man-to-man disrupts the other team's offense by drawing charging fouls or by forcing turnovers that lead to fast breaks. If the pace becomes too tiring, a Carolina player is allowed to take himself out of the game and, when he feels rested, put himself back in. Smith calls this accelerated style "taking the offensive on defense."
By constantly gambling on defense and looking for the fast break on offense, the Tar Heels inevitably give up a lot of points and a lot of easy baskets. But the freewheeling style also leads to numerous steals and fast-break baskets, making North Carolina first in the country in field-goal percentage over the last 10 years. "Our defensive philosophy complements the type of overall tempo we usually like to establish and is designed to help us achieve our total objectives," Smith says.
Characteristically, Smith defines his team's offensive and defensive aims differently than most other coaches. Rather than judge the Tar Heels' performance by the score of the game, he uses a "points per possession" ratio he devised while an assistant coach under Bob Spear at the Air Force Academy in the mid-'50s. To Smith, a team's offensive and defensive output depends on the number of opportunities it has to score or be scored upon.
The perfectly executed offense would result in an average of two points per possession and the perfect defense would hold a team scoreless. Of course, such perfection is not possible against major college competition; in fact, Smith has computed that .85 points per possession (ppp) constitutes good offense and .75 ppp is good defense. Even though Smith had one of his best defensive teams ever last season—giving up little more than 65 points per game—the Tar Heels met his tough defensive standard only seven times. In the last three seasons, North Carolina's defense allowed .75 ppp or less in 27 games—and won them all—while its opponents attained that figure only twice, winning once.
By Smith's reckoning, the Tar Heels played bad defense last year while beating North Carolina State 70-69 and Wake Forest 76-69, because the defense allowed the opposition .87 and .82 ppp, respectively. When North Carolina does hold an opponent to .75 ppp, the defense is good, no matter what the final score. For example, it once beat Louisville 105-91 but allowed only .73 ppp. The Tar Heels played a whale of a defensive game, but, as usual, all anyone wanted to talk about afterward was the offense.