Edwin Louis Jucker, coach of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, is not by nature a gloomy man. He has the national basketball championship trophy, which pleases him; an able 6-foot-9 center nicknamed Marmaduke, which comforts him; and an automobile seat belt given him by fans who wish he wouldn't jump off the bench so much, which amuses him. He is often tough, calculating, determined, shrewd, nervy and right—but not often gloomy.
Thus it was a measure of a most unusual situation last week that shortly after his team had perpetrated a massacre in Cincinnati and survived mayhem in Pittsburgh to defeat two of the country's best independent teams, Dayton and Duquesne, Ed Jucker could be found in Suite 400 of Pittsburgh's Webster Hall Hotel holding a very cold beer, staring very hard at a television set and looking very gloomy indeed. "Bradley 77, Drake 65," announced the TV sportscaster. "That," said Ed Jucker, "doesn't help a bit." The reason it didn't help was that Cincinnati must first win the Missouri Valley Conference race before getting a chance to defend its national title in the NCAA tournament. Bradley, at this point, was unbeaten in conference play, while Cincinnati had lost twice earlier in the season.
The Cincinnati team that was in these straitened circumstances is very likely the second-best in the country, behind Ohio State. Its losses came in an overtime to Bradley, where a formidable home cheering section is always a factor ( Cincinnati has never won a conference game there), and in a single-point defeat by Wichita. It has won its 13 other games with the same pattern of play that took it to last year's championship: an exquisite defense that one of these days may hold a rival to no points at all, and an undistinguished offense that often stutters so badly in the first half it may someday score no points at all.
Jucker is the man who made Cincinnati a defense-conscious team. When he took over as head coach a season ago he found himself with a run-and-shoot team that had just enjoyed three years of peerless and exciting Oscar Robertson. "Players who totaled 60 points a game were graduating," said Jucker. "I asked myself where I was going to make up all those points, and I decided that maybe if we gave up only 40 points a game we wouldn't need to score much. I also thought, frankly, by holding the score down the games would seem closer and the fans wouldn't be as tough on us."
It took considerable gall to turn Cincinnati into a defensive team, for this was the tactical equivalent of making a team of bunters out of the Yankees. "I knew I was asking for it from the players and the fans," says Jucker. "If it didn't work I was dead." He tacked up inspirational signs in the locker room ("There is no I in TEAM") and devoted more than 80% of every practice to defense—a procedure he still follows. The result was what he calls "a pressure defense," which is not frantic and fast, but abrasive and relentless as a glacier. "We don't try to steal the ball, we just keep the pressure on. In the end, this upsets an opponent's offensive patterns and forces mistakes," says Jucker. After three early-season losses last year, Cincinnati pressured its way to 22 straight wins and the championship.
Cincinnati's ardent followers figured this year's team would be even better. Returning were three starters; Center Paul Hogue, tall as a fir and broad as a redwood, who ambles about so casually and likably that his teammates have dubbed him Marmaduke after the large, friendly dog of cartoon fame; Guard Tony Yates, a 24-year-old veteran of four years in the Air Force who is always smiling on the court as if finding an adult's pleasure in a college boy's game, and who is about the best defensive guard in the country; Forward Tom Thacker, who at a mere 6 feet 2 can jump with Hogue. In addition, two ex-high school All-Americas were now sophomores on the squad—6-foot-5 Ron Bonham and 6-foot-8 George Wilson. But as Cincinnati's surprised fans are learning, and Ed Jucker knew all along, it was going to be harder to hold a championship than to win one.
The obvious problem is that every team and its rooters dream of beating Cincinnati. "Drive carefully going home," the public-address announcer said near the end of one recent Bradley game. "You wouldn't want to miss the Cincinnati game."
Less obvious are some technical difficulties. The Bearcats badly need a guard who can shoot from outside. The sophomores make defensive mistakes. The team is woeful from the foul line, shooting only .617. "I've tried everything," says Jucker of this flaw. "Once I said they couldn't go to dinner until they made 10 straight at practice. It got to be 8 o'clock, and I had to relent." And finally, the team starts slowly. It has been behind at the half five times this season.
Last week as the Bearcats strengthened their national prestige by beating Dayton and Duquesne, the problems of the champs were amply evident. Tuesday night they trailed Dayton 33-26 at half time, losing the ball 13 times on errors. They they roared back with 54 points in the second half, made but a single error and won breezing, 80-61.
Two nights later in Pittsburgh the Bearcats met Duquesne, the fifth-ranked team in the country and one that has a defense even stingier than Cincinnati's.