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Larry Keith
December 03, 1979
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December 03, 1979

Putting A Lid On The Basket

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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.

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