Posted: Tuesday October 23, 2012 10:31AM ; Updated: Tuesday October 23, 2012 10:31AM
Alex Wolff
Alex Wolff>THE HOOP LIFE

1964 UCLA Bruins crowned college hoops' most influential team

Story Highlights

John Wooden's 1964 UCLA Bruins is college basketball's most influential squad

In addition to changing the game, the '64 Bruins touched off a historic legacy

1966 Texas Western, 1993 Michigan among other teams that changed hoops

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The 1964 UCLA Bruins touched off a historic run of 10 national titles in 12 years.
The 1964 UCLA Bruins touched off a historic run of 10 national titles in 12 years.
AP

It's an old and much-renewed debate when college hoops fans gather: Which team was best, greatest, or most dominant?

We decided to put a finer point on that argument and ask a slightly different question. Which teams have had the most far-reaching and long-lasting influence on college basketball? To which can we trace some essential characteristic of the game today? Which teams both reached up to shape the pros, and down to touch the playgrounds?

We sifted through college basketball's past to separate teams that were truly influential from those that were merely dominant or entertaining. And the result included some omissions that might surprise you.

Take, for instance, the UCLA teams of 1967 through '69, which featured Lew Alcindor anchoring the middle. The Alcindor Bruins of John Wooden collected 88 victories in 90 games, as well as NCAA titles at the end of each season. But those UCLA teams were sui generis. They rode their precocious center's dominance and didn't have much ripple effect beyond striking awe in those who watched them. Few other coaches could realistically hope to emulate what Wooden did in Westwood over those seasons -- building a team around a 7-foot prodigy.

Or consider Loyola Marymount and its revved-up attack during the late 1980s. Paul Westhead's Lions entertained us, surprised us and, after the sudden death of forward Hank Gathers, engaged us emotionally. But LMU was a comet across the college hoops sky. The Westhead system was too quirky to inspire disciples who could take it and, Appleseed-like, plant it elsewhere.

Conversely, you will find on our list a number of teams -- from Michigan's Fab Five of 1993 to Memphis' near-champs of 2008 -- that failed to win titles. They're cited for their role in popularizing or paving the way for a lasting trend, or impacting basketball culture, or clarifying some deep hoop truth, or otherwise firing the pebblegrain imagination.

To get a better sense of our criteria, it's worth taking a close look at our choice as the Most Influential Team of All-Time: The 1964 UCLA Bruins.

1. 1964 UCLA

How did Wooden's first NCAA title team leave a legacy? Let us count the ways:

• With pressure defense. The '64 Bruins proved not only that you could win with pressure, but also dominate with it. A 2-2-1 zone trap helped UCLA go 30-0 despite starting no one over 6-5. The defense soon developed a mystique all its own, with wags calling it everything from "The Glue Factory" to "Arranged Chaos." Asked what it was like to play against, USC coach Forrest Twogood posed a question right back: "Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days? That's how it feels."

• With athleticism. That small lineup helped enshrine speed and range -- not crude pituitary-ism -- as one of college basketball's cardinal virtues. Two starters, Keith Erickson and Fred Slaughter, attended UCLA on split scholarships: Erickson with baseball and Slaughter with track. (Slaughter had been a 9.9 sprinter in high school; in addition to baseball, Erickson played volleyball growing up near the beach in El Segundo, Calif., and would make the U.S. team in that sport for the Tokyo Olympics.)

GALLERY: Classic Photos of the 1964 UCLA Bruins

• By showcasing "the run." Even without the three-point shot, Wooden's first title team demonstrated the withering power of unanswered points -- the feature of today's game that keeps hope alive even for teams trailing by double digits with a few minutes to play. In each of UCLA's 30 games that season, the press delivered at least one decisive "Bruin Blitz," as they came to be known. The 16-0 run that did in Duke in the NCAA title game stands as a stirring valedictory.

• With tempo. The '64 Bruins proved that you could actually control tempo, and thereby prefigured much of the thinking of coaches today. The genius of the zone press, UCLA showed, was how it sped up the game. Against a man-to-man press an opponent dribbles the ball upcourt, but dribbling chews up time and thus slows the pace. A zone press, by contrast, invites an offense to break it with passes, which accelerate tempo -- and thus the Bruins could take advantage of their overall team speed. A typical team is more likely to have speed than height, and that's why, after winning the title, Wooden fielded letters from some 700 coaches wanting to know how the press worked. (Wooden being Wooden, wrote every one back.)

• By deploying role players. By assigning each player a primary task according to his strength, UCLA foreshadowed the increased specialization that would come to mark the college game. Jack Hirsch was a defender, Walt Hazzard a passer, Gail Goodrich a shooter. And Slaughter and Erickson performed highly specific roles in the press. Slaughter ran the baseline at the front of the 2-2-1, using both his 235 pounds to obscure the inbounder's view up the floor and his speed to sprint back into defensive position; Erickson, as the "safety" at the back, deployed the lateral quickness and leaping ability that led Cal coach Rene Herrerias to call him "a 6-5 Bill Russell."

• By reconfiguring the map. The team pulled the game's balance of power westward, while at the same time establishing for UCLA a national recruiting presence. On both of those counts, the '64 Bruins helped break down the regional paradigm on which the sport had long been based. Erickson, Goodrich and Hirsch may have come from greater Los Angeles, but back-up center Doug McIntosh was a white guy from Lily, Ky. He roomed with Kenny Washington, a black guy from Beaufort, S.C. Hazzard grew up in the schoolyards of inner-city Philadelphia, and Slaughter came from Topeka, Kan. Together they began a trend that would accelerate over the next dozen years, as Southern California became a basketball pilgrim's Mecca.

• By grooming lasting pros. In Erickson, Goodrich and Hazzard, the '64 Bruins produced three fine, enduring NBA players. Total pros produced isn't the most meaningful metric by which to judge a team's impact. (Indeed, Kentucky's 1996 NCAA champions would send three times as many players to the NBA.) But if all of the '64 Bruins had simply watched their careers peter out upon graduation, it would be harder to make the case for the team's lasting impact.

• By surprising us. The team's perfect season demonstrated what would become one of the abiding charms of the college game: that anything can happen. A team unmentioned in SI's preseason Top 20 suddenly found itself atop the sport. Despite the Bruins' undefeated status going into the tournament, their run through the NCAAs continued to confound the pundits. Fans showed up at games sporting WE TRY HARDER buttons, lifted from the Avis Rent-a-Car ad campaign. Difficult as it would soon be to believe, UCLA made its first hoops impression as the plucky underdog -- the VCU or George Mason of its day. The '64 Bruins would have laid waste to many an office pool, had office pools existed back then.

• By spotlighting the Wizard of Westwood. The Bruin Blitzers fully introduced to the world the man who would become the game's most accomplished coach. More, it put a new frame around him: Until 1964, "Johnny Wooden" had simply been another guy with a clipboard. His teams were solid, known mostly for their conditioning and ability to play the "racehorse style" associated with the Midwest, where he had grown up and played his own college ball. But over Wooden's 15 previous seasons in Westwood, UCLA had never won a title.

• By launching a dynasty. With this team, UCLA touched off the most dominant stretch of any college program ever. Its first championship was no fluke; if it had been, the Bruins wouldn't have repeated in '65. And, after a brief pause for Texas Western's historic title the next season, UCLA ran off seven in a row, for a total of 10 in 12 years.

Here are the other 13 teams that made the biggest impact:

2. & 3. 1979 Michigan State and Indiana State (jointly)

Yin and yang, city and country, Magic and Larry: The year that ESPN was born, and the Big East was launched, and CBS realized that it was worth opening the vault to win the rights to the NCAA tournament, these were the two perfect teams to meet in the title game. Neither the Spartans nor the Sycamores was a demonstrably great team in its own right. But the two individuals on the marquee led to the highest TV rating ever for an NCAA final. And when the game's stars moved to the pros, where they landed in the tradition-bound markets of L.A. and Boston, the NBA began its steady, astonishing journey from the ignominy of a tape-delayed Finals to the glory of must-see TV.

4. 1966 Texas Western

After the Miners' five black starters pulled off a title-game upset of Adolph Rupp and all-white Kentucky, no coach serious about his business could foreswear the African-American athlete. At the time, coach Don Haskins denied even being aware that his team had made racial history, but the Bear's insouciance only made it seem more of a no-brainer that a coach signed and played the best players possible. And there was a less-ballyhooed feature of that '66 final: Bobby Joe Hill's two first-half steals for layups, which confirmed the belief of coaches in the need for speed, if UCLA's titles the two previous years hadn't already done so. It remains a badge of Baby-Boomer belonging to be able to name both Smothers Brothers, all four Beatles, and the Miners' five starters: Hill; Willie Worsley; Willie Cager; Orsten Artis; and David (Big Daddy) Lattin.

 
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