Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach, was speaking about pressure defense, that being the common shrine worshiped by the teams that have made it here to the Final Four, namely, Duke, North Carolina, UNLV and Kansas.
"It began with Dick Harp at Kansas in 1952," said Smith, trying not to sound old but without much success. "Harp was an assistant coach to Dr. (Phog) Allen, and he taught ball-to-man pressure defense to the team." Of which Smith was a member."I don't know if anyone is old enough to remember back to 1953, when Kansas played Washington in the (national) semifinals," Smith continued, "but that was the game when Washington couldn't get off a shot at the start of the game."
Kansas went on to beat Washington easily, 79-53, qualifying to play Indiana for the championship. Indiana won by a point in the title game, 69-68, deny
ing Kansas and Smith, a little-used guard, its second straight national crown. But the Jayhawks would get some measure of satisfaction two years later, when San Francisco, led by center Bill Russell, emerged to win two straight titles of its own (in 1955 and 1956).
San Francisco used Harp's invention.
"Their coach, Phil Woolpert, came to Kansas in '53 to learn all about pressure defense," said Smith. "He said he had a pretty good guy in the middle who could block shots."
"The same philosophy (of pressure defense) went on to coaches like (Jerry) Tarkanian and (Mike) Krzyzewski," said Smith, referring to two of his coaching peers here at the Final Four. He could easily have also added Kansas Coach Roy Williams, the other coach here, since Williams was a Smith assistant at UNC for 10 years before turning Kansas into a kind of Chapel Hill West (which was appropriate since Smith, after leaving Kansas, turned Chapel Hill into KU East).
Apart from the intrigue of seeing whether UNLV, with its 24-year-old NBA draft dodgers, will indeed make a mockery of the 52nd annual Final Four here this weekend, there is also the intrigue of having so much basketball history represented by the coaches of the finalists, and the schools they represent.
When Smith, who turned 60 this year, starts talking about Phog Allen and Dick Harp, you realize it's only one more step back to Kansas' first coach, James Naismith, a man who made even Harp's invention, however effective, pale into insignificance.
Naismith invented the game that made pressure defense possible.
He invented basketball in the winter of 1891, exactly 100 years ago. Ironically, his initial primary objective was to put the ball in the basket, not keep it out.
Kansas was one of the first colleges in the country to seize on the new indoor sport as a continuing program for its athletic department. The Jayhawks fielded their first official team in 1899, with Naismith as their first head coach. To this day, Naismith, who used to insist that "you don't coach basketball, you just play it," remains the only coach in Kansas history with a losing record.
Duke started its basketball program in 1906 and has played ever since; North Carolina started in 1911.
UNLV didn't crank up its program until much later, waiting until 1) Las Vegas became a city, 2) UNLV became a university, and 3) Jerry Tarkanian got ran out of Long Beach.
So the Rebels don't appear on a lot of alltime lists. But the others here do. North Carolina's 1,508 career wins rank first in history, while Kansas is third on the alltime list with 1,458 wins (behind Kentucky's 1,501), and Duke is sixth with 1,375 wins (just behind St. John's and Oregon State).
In the NCAA tournament, which began in 1939, North Carolina's 54 wins rank third on the alltime list (behind UCLA and Kentucky), Duke's 42 wins rank fifth, Kansas's 41 wins rank sixth, and UNLV's 30 wins rank ninth.
This is no inexperienced field. With his career record of 599-119, .834, UNLV's Tarkanian is the most successful winner in college basketball history, while Smith, with his 717 career wins, is No. 6 and gaining on the alltime most-wins list.
Of additional historical note is that today's games - Duke vs. UNLV and North Carolina vs. Kansas - bring together re-matches of both the closest and most lopsided championship games in the history of the NCAA tournament.
In 1957, Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain played North Carolina for the title, with Carolina winning 54-53 after three overtimes - the only triple-overtime game in finals history.
In 1990, Duke and UNLV played in the final, with UNLV earning a 103-73 win - the most lopsided in championship game history.
If the oddsmakers are right, history will repeat itself again today. Duke and Kansas are both underdogs.
But no matter who prevails in the semis, and no matter who prevails in Monday night's championship, this Final Four has a sense of basketball history to it. Every team here can trace its roots back to the same place. Whichever one wins, Dick Harp deserves some of the credit.