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.