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Greatest College Basketball Teams:  Spotlight 1968 Houston

The 1968 Houston Cougars basketball team won their first 31 games, but lost their last two, the National Championship game and the Final Four consolation game.  The Cougars lost the National Championship game to Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and the 1968 UCLA Bruins, widely recognized as the best college basketball team ever.  'We were the second best team in the United States,' Houston's coach Guy Lewis later said.  'There's no doubt in my mind.'
Lewis decided to integrate the Houston Cougars basketball team.  In 1964, he recruited 6'5' guard Don Chaney and 6'9' power forward Elvin Hayes from segregated black high schools in Louisiana.  Their first year playing varsity basketball as sophomores in 1965-66, Chaney and Hayes led Houston to a 23-6 record.  As juniors in 1966-67, Chaney and Hayes led Houston to a 27-4 record and a Final Four loss to Alcindor and UCLA.  'I liked the idea of going to Houston . . . of helping desegregate athletics here,' Elvin Hayes said.  'I knew coach Lewis wanted to do just that, so I went.'  In 1968, Lewis was rewarded for his efforts.  He was named National Coach of the Year.

Elvin Hayes grew up in segregated Louisiana.  He attended all-black Britton High School.  Hayes was an uncoordinated and introverted kid.  A teacher encouraged him to play basketball.  The gym in which Britton played its games had a cement-tile floor and brick walls behind each basket. "They didn't bother us so much," said Hayes. "We were a fast-break team and every one of us was on close terms with those walls."  His teammates laughed at his poor dribbling and shooting skills.  Hayes practiced day and night.  His senior year in 1964, Hayes led Britton to the Louisiana State Championship, averaging 35 points per game.  In the State Championship Game, Hayes scored 45 points and had 20 rebounds.
The 6'9' Hayes dominated during his three-year varsity career at Houston.  He had a deadly baseline turnaround jump shot, which was as unstoppable as Kareem's sky hook.  Hayes holds the Houston records for scoring, field goals and rebounds for a game (62 points and 28 field goals versus Valparaiso in 1968 and 37 rebounds versus Centenary in 1968), for a season (36.8 points per game, 15.7 field goals per game and 18.9 rebounds per game in 1968) and for a career (31 points per game, 13.1 field goals per game and 17.2 rebounds per game).  Hayes was also great defensively, blocking opponents' shots at will.  Hayes was a three-time All-American and was National Player of the Year in 1968.

Early in the 1968 season, Hayes was asked to be best man at a teammate's wedding.  'That doesn't surprise me,' Houston coach Guy Lewis said, 'He's been my best man for three years.' 

Hayes was the first pick of the NBA draft in 1968.  As a rookie with the San Diego Rockets, Hayes led the NBA in scoring, averaging 28.4 points per game.  His second season in the NBA, Hayes led the league in rebounding.  Hayes won an NBA Championship with the Washington Bullets in 1978 and was a 12-time NBA All-Star.  He is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Hayes was ahead of his time by being perhaps the first pampered crybaby superstar.  Hayes said "sometimes Lewis would really get on me in practice, and I'd give him a real hurt kind of look and say, 'You just don't like black players.' He would get all upset and fall all over himself denying it and apologizing, and I'd stand there laughing, unable to convince him that I was only joking."  After losing to UCLA in the Final Four his Junior Year, Hayes said, 'We lost because my teammates choked up.'

Alex Hannum, who coached Hayes in the NBA at San Diego, called him "the most despicable person I've ever met in sports."   Tex Winter, another one of Hayes' coaches in the NBA said: 'I found him so lacking in fundamentals. It's true that I tried to mold him into my concept of what a post man should be, but I could not get any response from him and that caused all sorts of problems on the club. He knew he was more valuable than I was and there was just no way I could build a young club around him."  Bernie Bickerstaff, an assistant coach with the Bullets when they won the NBA championship in 1978 said "Elvin was very tough to read and very sensitive.  He was so talented he found it difficult to understand why others failed to perform up to his standards."

Guard Don Chaney was an All-American at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge.  Although Chaney was a prolific outside scorer in High School, he had a different role with the Cougars.  'My job was to get the ball inside to Hayes as much as possible.  Actually, it made a lot of sense because not many teams could stop Elvin inside.  I might have resented my role a little if we hadn't been winning.  Nobody wants to be a caddie all his life.'
Chaney still managed to score 13 points and pull down 5.8 rebounds per game for the Cougars in 1968.  He was named to the All-American team.  Chaney especially shined on the defensive end of the floor.  He was constantly harassing opposing guards and stealing the ball.  'I acquired a reputation as the team's best defensive player and I liked that,' Chaney said.

'Chaney was a super leader,' Houston coach Guy Lewis said.  'He knew the game of basketball in and out.'

Chaney was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1968 NBA Draft.  He played 11 seasons in the NBA and won two NBA Championships.  He was named to the All-Defensive team five times.

After playing in the NBA, Chaney went on to a coaching career.  He was an NBA head coach for 11 seasons and was named Coach of the Year with Houston in 1991-92.

Center Ken Spain averaged 14.4 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in 1968.  He was second, in each category, only to Elvin Hayes.  Lewis said Spain 'was strong as a bull.'  Spain was an All-American in 1968 and played on the USA Olympic basketball team in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Forward Theodis Lee (13.9 pts., 7.9 reb.) and Point Guard George Reynolds (10 pts., 4.9 reb.) rounded out Houston's starting lineup.  'George was the greatest point guard I ever played with,' Elvin Hayes later said.  'He knew exactly what each player could do, where his best shots were.'

Houston ran a fast break offense and pressing defense.  The Cougars outscored opponents 97.8 to 72.2 points per game.  'We had about nine different presses,' Lewis said.  'We charged up and down the floor.' 

On December 2, 1967, the Houston Cougars started the1967-68 season by crushing Sacramento State, 110-79 at home.  Elvin Hayes poured in 35 points as the home crowd chanted 'EEE', 'EEE.'

The second ranked Cougars won their first 16 games in a row before facing off against first ranked UCLA on January 20, 1968 in what was dubbed 'The Game of the Century.'  UCLA brought a 47-game winning streak to the game.  Houston was looking for revenge, after having lost to UCLA in the Final Four in 1967.

The Game of the Century was the brainchild of Houston coach Guy Lewis.  The nation's two best college teams, Houston and UCLA, and the nation's two best players, Hayes and Alcindor, would face off in the Astrodome in front of more than 50,000 fans.  The game was to be the first nationally televised regular season college basketball game ever.

The game lived up to the hype.  Elvin Hayes dominated the first half of the game.  He scored 29 first half points.  After the game, Guy Lewis said that Hayes' first half performance was 'the greatest I've ever seen in college basketball.'  Houston built up a nine-point lead, but UCLA battled back and only trailed by three, 46-43, at halftime.  In the second half, Houston and UCLA traded baskets.  Hayes played the last 12 minutes of the game with four fouls.  With 44 seconds left, UCLA guard Lucius Allen hit two free throws to tie the game at 69-69.  With 28 seconds left, Houston got the ball to Elvin Hayes.  Hayes was fouled and made the two free throws, giving Houston a 71-69 lead.  UCLA's Allen threw up a last second shot, but it didn't fall. 

Hayes wound up with 39 points and 15 rebounds.  Alcindor could manage only 15 points and 12 rebounds on 4 of 18 shooting.  'I completely outplayed Kareem,' Hayes said after the game.  'I scored 39, he scored 15. I had 15 rebounds and he had 12. And then he tried to make a big deal out of some eye injury. But I know that it wasn't the eye that was bothering him."  Houston's 1-3-1 zone gave Alcindor trouble as well.  Hayes and Center Ken Spain blocked Alcindor's shots and denied him the ball inside.  'You can't say enough about what a great job Kenny Spain did on [Alcindor],' Hayes said.  'That made the difference in the game.'

After it was over, Guy Lewis said, 'The UCLA game at the dome not only helped us in Houston, it helped basketball.  It proved basketball was a national product.  That was the greatest game I ever coached in.'

"That's right," Hayes told the Houston Chronicle after the game. "That's where I'm going right now. I'm going to go pick up Lew and we're going to a party."

After a week of celebrating, Houston got back to business.  Houston scored more than 100 points against their next 11 opponents in a row to finish the season ranked number one with a perfect 28-0 record.  In a single week during this stretch, Houston beat Texas Arlington 130-75, Valparaiso 158-81 and Hardin-Simmons 105-82.  Hayes scored 44, 62 and 40 points in the three games.  When the regular season was over, Hayes had scored more than 30 points in 24 out of 28 games.

On March 9, 1968, Houston faced Loyola-Chicago in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  The Cougars were forced to play in the tournament without Point Guard George Reynolds, who was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament because he had insufficient credit hours.  The loss of Reynolds didn't seem to hurt the Cougars.  They beat Loyola-Chicago 94-76.  Hayes scored 49 points and grabbed 27 rebounds.  The next victim was Louisville.  Houston defeated Louisville 91-75 behind 35 points from Hayes.  In the third round, Houston pounded TCU, 103-68.  Hayes scored 39.

This set up a rematch of the Game of the Century in the Final Four in Los Angeles.  Before the game, Hayes said of UCLA, 'We've improved'. They couldn't play us as close now as they did then.'  Unfortunately for Hayes and the Cougars, UCLA was ready for them.  The Bruins used a diamond-and-one defense to shut down Hayes.  It worked.  Hayes was held to just 10 points and 5 rebounds.  Each and every one of UCLA's starters outscored Hayes as UCLA crushed Houston, 101-69.  When it was over, UCLA's defense had held Houston to just 28.2% shooting from the field. 

Houston lost again the next day in the Final Four consolation game against Ohio State, 89-85, despite 34 points from Elvin Hayes.  The undefeated regular season ended with a whimper.

Name                Pos    Class    Pts    Reb
Elvin Hayes          F       SR     36.8   18.9
Ken Spain            C       JR     14.4   12.8
Theodis Lee          F       JR     13.9    7.9
Don Chaney           G       SR     13.0    5.8
George Reynolds      G       JR     10.0    4.9
Tom Gribben         G/F      SO      3.3    2.3
Niemer Hamood        G       JR      3.2    0.7
Carlos Bell         F/C      JR      3.1    2.2
Vern Lewis           G       SR      2.8    1.0
Larry Cooper         F       SO      1.4    1.1

How would the 1968 Houston Cougars do against the teams of today?  How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?

Elvin Hayes is one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in college and NBA history.  There is no doubt that Hayes would be a great player today.  Don Chaney was also a great player, particularly defensively.  The Cougars fast break offense would have no trouble with the shot clock.  The three-pointer would help Chaney to draw defenses outside and enable Hayes to score even easier than in 1968.  Hayes and Ken Spain were both excellent rebounders in 1968 and, at 6'9', would both be big enough to rebound today.  With two first round NBA draft picks, including one of the best NBA players ever, the 1968 Cougars would be a very good team today.

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