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.
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.