Syracuse Unleashes Metaphysical Power in win
over Virginia 28 Mar 16
By Tony Medley
Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it:
In 1988 I received a telephone call from Digger Phelps, then coach of
Notre Dame’s basketball team. He told me that he used my book, UCLA
Basketball: The Real Story, in the biggest victory of his career,
when the Irish ended UCLA’s record 88 game winning streak in 1974, but
he had loaned it to a sportswriter and it wasn’t returned and he wanted
another, so I sent it to him. Now I’m going to send a copy of it to
Virginia’s young basketball coach, Tony Bennett, because he clearly
needs to learn from history.
As explained in
detail in my book, in 1963 (six years before Bennett was born) UCLA
assistant basketball coach Jerry Norman went to his boss, UCLA Head
Coach John Wooden, and told him that because their players were short
but quick, he thought that they should install a full-court zone press
to speed up the tempo by getting the other team to take quick shots,
quoting master coach Pete Newell (whose California teams dominated
Wooden’s UCLA teams) that “the team that controls the tempo controls the
game.” Norman convinced Wooden that in an up-tempo game UCLA would
always have the advantage, even if they did give up some easy baskets,
and the best way to increase the tempo was to play a full court zone
press the entire game, and that’s what they did. It worked, and with a
team with no starter over 6-5, UCLA won 30 consecutive games without a
loss and the NCAA title, UCLA’s first ever.
In a key explanatory
statement, Norman said that the other teams thought that the point of
the press was to steal the ball, but he said that had nothing to do with
it. All UCLA wanted the other team to do was to take quick shots to
increase the tempo of the game.
Segue to Sunday
night. No. 1 seeded University of Virginia Cavaliers had played the
entire season controlling the tempo, slowing the game down and beating
teams with defense. With about 9:20 left in the game they had a 15 point
lead over Syracuse when Syracuse put on the full-court zone press
devised a half century ago by Norman. UVA broke it almost constantly,
resulting in 2 on 1 fast breaks, which they clearly do not know how to
run. Even though they made two baskets on the fast breaks, they only had
possession of the ball for a few seconds at a time, and they also missed
a few baskets and made some turnovers.
After the first fast
break, had Bennett been aware of the history of the game, UCLA’s zone
press, and Norman’s explanation, he should have immediately called a
timeout and instructed his players that after they broke the press
(which they did with relative ease) they should slow it down and play
their game, ignoring what looked like easy 2 on 1 fast break baskets.
But he did not do
that. He allowed Virginia to constantly break the press and constantly
take quick shots, more than half of which they missed. The result was
that Syracuse came roaring back and actually beat them by six points.
Good coaching vs. bad coaching. That’s a game Virginia should never
But even Syracuse
Coach Jim Boeheim didn’t fully understand the power his press had
unleashed. The next day, he said, “Your hope in that is that you get a
steal, and the secondary hope is that they make a mistake or miss a
shot, and that’s what happened.”
Then he said, “When
we took the one point lead we stopped pressing. The reason we stopped
pressing was that they were getting through our press pretty easily and
getting 2 on 1s and missing. I didn’t think they were going to keep
missing those 2 on 1s so we went back and contested defensively at half
court and made some defensive stops.”
This is stunning.
Boeheim reminds me of C. S. Lewis, who said, “The last temptation is the
great treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Boeheim
doesn’t even begin to comprehend the powerful dynamic that his full
court press unleashed! By completely changing the tempo of the game, the
entire complexion of the contest changed totally. It put Syracuse on a
roll. They were clearly on some sort of metaphysical high, making 9 of
10 shots, while Virginia had descended into a metaphysical low, making
only 2 of 8 shots.
When Boeheim got the
lead and pulled the press with three minutes to go, and Virginia got
back to its slow down game, the Cavaliers were totally perplexed and
equally ineffective. It was palpable. For the last nine minutes of the
game you could feel the force even just watching on television. It had
little or nothing to do with Virginia missing shots or making turnovers.
The drastic change of tempo caused by the full court press imposed
mystical power on the game and the players that transcended everything.
Now that I think of
it, I think I’ll send Coach Boeheim a copy of my book, too.