There won’t be a Final Four this year — Atlanta’s loss after the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley, a 2015 inductee of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, will present his list of the Top 10 Final Fours of all-time. The list will be presented in reverse order, culminating with the greatest men’s basketball championship.
Today: No. 8 — 1968
The aggregate margin of victory in this Final Four was 73 points, and that’s with Ohio State’s 89-85 defeat of Houston for third place included. (Remember third-place games? No?) But margin of victory is a key reason the 1968 convocation bears inclusion.
College basketball’s greatest dynasty was UCLA, which won 10 of 12 titles from 1964 through 1975. Had freshmen been eligible, the Bruins would have won 11 of 12. On Nov. 27, 1965, the school’s freshman team, known as the Brubabes, beat the UCLA varsity, which as the reigning NCAA champ was ranked No. 1 in the land, 75-60. The game was televised live in Los Angeles. It was the college debut for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor.
His first varsity game would come a year later. He scored 56 points against USC. He had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The consensus was that he'd leave Westwood having never lost a game. He came close. Abdul-Jabbar finished his varsity career 88-2. His teams won the predicted three NCAA titles. Still, the victories tended to blur, seeing as how almost nobody had a prayer against him and his classmates, who included Lucius Allen, Lynn Shackelford and Ken Heitz. It was their first loss — and how they answered it — that puts this Final Four on our list.
On Jan. 20, 1968, No. 1 UCLA met No. 2 Houston in the Astrodome. Billed as “The Game of the Century,” it was the first prime-time national telecast — on something called TVS — of regular-season college hoops. Abdul-Jabbar had suffered a scratched cornea eight days earlier and had missed two games. His performance in Houston was his worst as a collegian. He missed 14 of 18 shots. Three of those were blocked by the Cougars’ Elvin Hayes. The Big E scored 39 points, including the game-winning free throws.
Houston moved atop the rankings. UCLA slipped to No. 2. That was how things stood when they met again in the Final Four semifinals on a Friday night in, of all places, Los Angeles. (The games were staged at the L.A. Sports Arena, USC’s home.) Most figured the Bruins would win the rematch. Nobody figured they’d win the way they did.
The final score was 101-69. UCLA led by 22 at the half, by 44 before gearing down. (The Bruins did have a title game to play the next night. They beat North Carolina 78-55.) Every starter scored at least 14 points; none had more than 19. Abdul-Jabbar took 18 rebounds; Allen made 12 assists. The star, however, was Shackelford, the left-hander known for his corner jump shots. He scored 17 points and helped limit Hayes to 10. Jerry Norman, a UCLA assistant, had persuaded John Wooden to deploy a diamond-and-one against Hayes, Shackelford being the one.
Let’s not mince words. This was the greatest performance in the history of college basketball. This was the finest two hours of the finest team ever — Indiana fans will bristle at this, but no matter — as led by the finest collegiate player ever and the best coach ever. Yes, that’s as gushing a sentence as has been written in the history of humankind. It’s also the truth.
Wooden’s UCLA had won two titles before Abdul-Jabbar. It would win five more after him. I could have subbed out this Final Four for the 1973 edition, which saw Bill Walton — the second-best collegian ever — make 21 of 22 shots in scoring 44 points in the final against Memphis. But if you’re looking for the absolute apex of the almighty Bruins, the obliteration of Houston was it. I watched it live on a black-and-white TV. Fifty years later, I watched it again on YouTube. It was still breathtaking.
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