Is Team Defense Dead in College Basketball?

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Is Team Defense Dead in College Basketball?

"Once upon a time" the fable goes, but in this case, it was not a story but a fact. Prior to the days of "individual on the ball pressure," there was an emphasis on team or "help" defense from the other four players.

Oh, there is still the phrase "help defense," but today it pertains more or less to one individual recognizing that a teammate has been beaten on a play, and rotating over to help stop the individual who has broken free.

The key phrase here is "team." Case in point is the UCLA press, which led the Bruins to back-to-back national championships in 1964 and 1965. The '64 Bruins had no starter over 6'5" but won all 30 games that season by employing the most terrifying defense of its day: the 3-1–1 full-court zone press.

Built upon the team concept, the front three men swarmed the inbounds ball, pressuring the offensive player to immediately try to dribble out of it and be double-teamed or pass blindly out of it, often intercepted by the second line of defense.

The final line of defense, the "1" in the 3-1-1, was an acrobatic defender who could cover from side to side in case the ball came across midcourt without being turned over.

The concept was prepared in the office of the UCLA coaching staff of John Wooden. The UCLA press was so formidable that often the Bruins did not even have to resort to it during a game. Simply having it as a weapon they could impose on the opponent was enough to send many a team into defeat.

In the 1964 National Title game, UCLA trailed powerful Duke in the first half 30–27. The Blue Devils, who employed two seven-foot starters in Jay Buckley and Hack Tison, along with two All-Americans and future NBA All–Stars in Jeff Mullins and Jack Marin, were unprepared for what happened next.

Coach Wooden gave the word, and whoosh, the Bruins went on a 16–0 run to lead 43–27, and the game was essentially over. Duke never knew what hit them and eventually turned the ball over 29 times facing the UCLA zone press—a death-sting run.

Duke's coach, Vic Bubas, was a basketball genius who won 75 percent of his games during his decade-long run at the helm of the program. Bubas studied the zone press and broke down the principles. He then constructed an offense to defeat it. He just needed another chance to prove it could be done.

The Bruins accommodated him by agreeing to play back-to-back games at Durham and Charlotte in December of 1965. The viciousness which his Blue Devils attacked the press is still talked about today among those who saw it in person.

Specifically, Bubas devised a quick pass in, followed by a quick pass to the center of the court to the big man. From there, a ball handler could take a handoff or a wing could receive a short pass and break to the basket or pull up for a dependable jumper.

The key? No dribbling. Bubas discovered the heart of the zone press was built around the fear of turning the ball over while dribbling, or passing blindly. His system eliminated those weaknesses in the offensive approach to attack the zone press. 

The result was a beatdown of the No. 1 ranked Bruins on Friday night by the score of 82–66 and a Saturday night suffocation by the tune of 94–75. The mighty UCLA zone press was broken and beaten. Duke became the No. 1 team in the land the following week.

The following year Wooden installed 7'1" Lew Alcindor as the "back 1" of the 3-1-1, but in truth, that press was based upon the intimidation factor of big Lew and was only a shadow of its old self.

Likewise, when the 6'11" gazelle Bill Walton appeared on the Westwood scene in 1971, he assumed the back-line position. Still, it was the great talent and individual ability of those Bruin teams that led them to so many titles, not the press itself.

By the mid–1980s the imposition of the shot clock was a reality, and the idea of team defense became an almost obsolete term as individual ball pressure could cause the offense to be in the "wrong place at the wrong time" when trying to take a shot.

There was no need to shorten the game with its usual three and four-minute possessions. The rules had taken care of that offensive tactic. The athletes were stronger, faster, and better at covering individuals and not just spaces on the court.

Astonishingly, one current proponent of team defense and master of the zone principles was a guard on the 1965-66 Syracuse basketball team who saw his career come to an end in the "elite eight" against the same Vic Bubas-led Duke team that had solved the zone press riddle of UCLA earlier in the year. That guard was Jim Boeheim.

Boeheim's fearsome 2–3 "throttler," LSU's Dale Brown with his "amoeba" in 1986, George Ireland's Loyola of Chicago halfcourt "snapping turtle" in the mid–sixties, Ralph Miller's "Double Pressure Press" at Iowa and Wichita State in the sixties, Jerry Tarkanian's "Floating Man–Trap" at Long Beach State and Nevada–Las Vegas, along with "Brother" Bob King's "pressure–cooker" at New Mexico, are some of the few examples of the old team defensive systems that have by and large come and gone.

Curiously enough, the same said Boeheim was an assistant to the current Duke head Coach on the magnificent 2008 Olympic championship team. His input and expertise has been documented by Coach K as well as the players since returning from China.

An often-stated quotation applies in this case: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." As the game continues to evolve, we must ask ourselves, "Will the leveling of ability in competition result in a return to some of the tried and true team defenses of the past?" Only time will tell.

What we do know is there once was a time when such was the rule rather than the exception. Yes, "once upon a time..."

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