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Last Thursday afternoon at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, Wichita State, the Midwest regional champion, was out on the court for its last practice session before the final rounds of the NCAA championship began. The Shockers were going at three-quarter speed, scrimmaging against their own full-court press. The next night Wichita was to play UCLA, the defending national champion and, by acclamation, the exemplar of the press. Edgar Lacey, UCLA's star sophomore forward, ambled by with the rest of his team, on the way to the locker room. Lacey paused for a moment. Then, neither to his teammates nor to the Wichita players in particular but loud enough for both, he said very affectionately, as if talking about a good friend, "Watch the press, baby. Watch the press."
Lacey's regard for his team's fearsome weapon is well-founded. The press has made UCLA basketball famous and has brought Coach John Wooden inquiries from 700 other coaches, all of them anxious to learn how the Bruins do it. This year it has turned up in countless variations around the country, but apparently John Wooden does not answer his mail as well as he coaches. No one runs the press like UCLA.
The press is really a fairly simple response to an urgent need, a tactic analogous to that of a boxer who finds himself up against a slugger in a small ring. The more of the ring the boxer uses, the better chance he has to win. So he keeps the action moving all around the ring, counting on his speed and quickness to overcome his bigger, more powerful opponent. That is what the press does in basketball. The smaller, quicker team forces the bigger, slower team to play from one end of the court to the other, to the latter's disastrous disadvantage. That is what UCLA does, and that is the way it beat Wichita on Friday and Michigan on Saturday and won the NCAA championship for the second year in a row.
Wichita was no match at all for UCLA, but powerful Michigan was, and in the first few minutes of the final game on Saturday night the Wolverines were in command. Their big men—Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin, Oliver Darden—controlled the rebounds, and the whole team shot with remarkable accuracy from all over the court. With eight minutes gone, they led 20-13. UCLA was tense, and its All-America guard and floor leader, Gail Goodrich, was missing his shots. Co-captain Keith Erickson had to leave the game because of a leg injury, and Lacey was playing Erickson's safety man position on the press.
Then came a typical UCLA explosion. Kenny Washington, Fred Goss and Lacey hit jump shots. Goodrich sank a free throw. The Bruins took charge on the boards. Russell managed one basket for Michigan in the midst of it all, but Washington and Doug McIntosh came flying out of nowhere to block other Michigan shots. And triggering it all, making this offensive display possible, was the press. Suddenly, twice within a minute, the Wolverines could not even get the ball upcourt. They struggled to break through, and the blocks and interceptions followed. "The crowd was yelling louder and louder each time we did something," McIntosh said later. "But this one time I wasn't able to really put any pressure on Cazzie. Then I looked, and I saw the ball just dribble off his leg. I just watched that ball dribble off his leg, and all I could think was: 'Isn't this sweet? We're going to win.' "
UCLA was still behind at that moment, but McIntosh's hunch was correct. The tempo of the game had changed completely. In a three-minute period just before half time, UCLA scored 10 points and held Michigan to one. At intermission the Bruins led 47-34. Against perhaps the best rebounding team in college basketball, they actually were ahead in rebounds 19-17 and continued to control the playing style of the game throughout the second half, as Goodrich put on a superb display of ball handling. ("That little devil," Michigan Coach Dave Strack called him, admiringly.) Time and again Goodrich slithered through a maze of tall Wolverines to score with twisting hooks and layups. He hit long one-hand jumpers. He led the UCLA fast break. And with his teammates he hounded Michigan mercilessly on defense. But despite his individual brilliance, it was the UCLA defense, and especially the press, that won this game as it had won virtually every game for two successive championship teams.
John Wooden first used his zone press when he was a high school coach years ago, but for a long time he felt that it could not succeed in college competition. He decided to take a chance with it two years ago when he had what he thought was the right material. ("All I am asked about," Dave Strack said last week, "is the UCLA press. But anybody can press. To make it work you need the personnel. The UCLA press is mostly the UCLA players.")
UCLA's win over Michigan was especially impressive because Erickson's contribution was relatively minor. Erickson has often been described as the most valuable man in the press because of his size and mobility. Last Wednesday, however, he apparently pulled a muscle in his left leg, and aggravated it on Thursday and in pregame drills Friday. He scored only two points in the Wichita game (as compared with 28 and 29 in the regional the previous week), and he limped noticeably. On Saturday morning he had ultrasonic treatment and he was determined to play, but in the game he was bothered more by a tight bandage than by the injury itself. By the time he had loosened the bandage on the bench (after playing only the first five minutes), his substitute, Kenny Washington, had taken charge on the court.
Washington (no kin to his great namesake, a UCLA star of the '30s) is a pleasant young man who specializes in jumping higher than Valeri Brumel and in coming off the bench to star in NCAA championship games. Last year in the final against Duke, he left the bench to score 26 points. This year he scored only 17 (seven for nine from the floor), but he grabbed five rebounds and did a good job of harassing Cazzie Russell.
Russell made 28 points and played well as always, but the Wolverines had a hard time getting the ball to him in close. As in the previous night's semifinal game against Princeton, there seemed no pattern at all to the Michigan offense. Only once in each game did Michigan even run the play that opponents refer to as the Wolverines' "bread-and-butter." This calls for Russell to slide off Buntin at a high post, move underneath and look for a pass. If he has not been able to shake his man, he breaks out for a quick little jumper behind a screen set by Oliver Darden. The one time Russell tried it against UCLA was early in the game, but Darden was called for blocking and Michigan never repeated the maneuver. Instead, the Wolverines depended almost entirely on their muscle and the long shot. Both worked against Princeton; neither of them was reliable after the UCLA defense took hold.