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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Power of the Press May Be Story of the Day

East Regional: Kentucky and UCLA will try to force the issue on defense, but USC and Duke plan to be aggressive and look for the easy basket.

March 22, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — J.P. Blevins searches for some telltale signs when he senses Kentucky's full-court press is causing an opposing team to crack.

"You can see it in their eyes a lot of times," the junior guard said. "The fire's not there. They're not clapping. They're not talking much. You can just kind of see when teams start to wear down a little bit."

The Wildcats are hoping to use their press to push USC to the brink of exhaustion--and beyond--tonight in an East Regional semifinal. UCLA, which also has built its identity around the press, will try to do the same thing to Duke.

"I usually know when I've got somebody defensively when their shoulders drop, or when they stand with one leg stiff and shift their weight to the side," UCLA guard Ray Young said. "I've seen one time when a guy put his hands on his shorts and he didn't look like he was going to make it. His head was down, and it looked like he was ready to get sick."

The press can do that to teams. But it also leaves open the door for offensive opportunities. That's what Duke is banking on, and the Blue Devils have given every indication they are inviting the Bruins to apply the squeeze. Then again, Duke has the utmost confidence in sophomore point guard Jason Williams.

"We'll bring the ball down the court," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We don't have to set the ball up each time, so people who press us need to know--and I think they do--that we're going to shoot it in transition. If we get an open look, we're going to take it.

"The press can give you real good scoring opportunities. It can give the pressing team that, and it can give the team being pressed that. I don't expect them to change what they do, but we'll attack it."

USC had its share of problems with the press in a second-round game against Boston College, which runs a true full-court variety. Kentucky tends to rely more on a three-quarter-court press and half-court traps. Still, the Wildcats could present problems for Trojan point guard Brandon Granville, who is not as quick as Duke's Williams and, at 5 feet 9, can easily get lost in a sea of bodies.

"You can't go out there and be timid with the ball, or even with your attitude," Granville said. "You need to be aggressive. That's something I told Robert Hutchinson when he came in for me in the second half of the [Boston College] game after I fouled out. You've just got to go out there and play. Because guys can't stay that close with you if you're just attacking. We got a lot of fouls and easy buckets like that."

When a pressing team smells blood, though, it can get ugly quickly. That's when the turnovers pile up, the shot clock winds down, and offensive players pass from side to side simply to get the ball across the half-court stripe.

"Turnovers and missed free throws are contagious in basketball," USC forward Brian Scalabrine said. "If you don't turn the ball over, and you're just running smooth, then you'll be fine. If a team wants to attack a guy who starts turning the ball over, then the whole team might start turning the ball over."

Hofstra, UCLA's first-round opponent, tried to simulate the Bruin press in practice by running five-on-six drills. It was a noble effort, but it didn't work too well. In the second half, Hofstra crumbled under the weight of UCLA's scheme.

It isn't an easy adjustment for teams that do not often face a smothering press during the regular season. Because the Bruins use it so often, they also practice against it. Although they have always had it in their playbook, they started using it regularly in the second half of a Dec. 23 game against North Carolina in which they erased a 19-point first-half deficit before losing by 10.

Kentucky has relied on the press longer. The Wildcats keep players fresh by rotating early and often. By Blevins' thinking, there's only one problem with pressing so much.

"Practices aren't much fun at all."

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