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Greatest College Basketball Teams:  Spotlight 1968 UCLA

The 1968 UCLA Bruins basketball team had it all.  The Bruins had John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time, and 7'2' center Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), whom Wooden called 'the most valuable college player ever.'  Wooden, who coached ten National Championship teams, said, 'I've never come out and said it, but it would be hard to pick a team over the 1968 team.'

The previous year, the Bruins were 30-0.  In 1968, every single starter and every reserve that averaged more than 1.1 points per game returned.  Edgar Lacey and Mike Lynn, two forwards who had started in 1966 but sat out in 1967, also returned to play on the 1968 team.  The Bruins started the season ranked number one in the country and were expected to dominate.

Lew Alcindor grew up in Harlem in New York.  He was heavily recruited out of High School.  When Alcindor was still in High School, the coach of an NBA team said 'I'll trade two first-round draft picks for him right now.'  When Alcindor arrived at UCLA in 1965, freshmen were not allowed to play on varsity college teams.  In a scrimmage at the beginning of the 1965-66 season, Alcindor led the UCLA freshman team to a 75-60 win over UCLA's number one ranked varsity team, scoring 31 points, pulling down 21 rebounds and blocking 8 shots. 

In his first varsity game at the start of the 1966-67 season, Alcindor scored 56 points, still an NCAA record for most points in a first varsity game.  Alcindor went on to average 29 points per game.  The NCAA outlawed the dunk shot in an attempt to limit his scoring.  Although Alcindor's scoring average dropped to 26.2 in 1967-68, because the dunk was the only shot he couldn't defend, Alcindor was even more dominating defensively in 1968 than in 1967.

For the season in 1968, Alcindor averaged 26.2 points and 16.5 rebounds.  He was named a first team All American for what would be the second of three consecutive years.

When Bill Walton, another great UCLA player, was asked to name the best player he played against, Walton said Alcindor 'was not just the best center, he was the best player, period.  He was better than Magic (Johnson), better than Larry (Bird), better than Michael (Jordan). . . . He was phenomenal.'  The Sporting News agreed, naming Lew Alcindor the number one college player of all time and claiming that 'no player was easier to rank than Lew Alcindor.'

Guards Mike Warren (12.1 points) and Lucius Allen (15.1 points, 6 rebounds) were also All Americans in 1968.  Point Guard Warren was an Academic All American in 1967 and is the only player to be captain of two of John Wooden's teams.   Wooden said that Warren was the smartest player he ever coached.  Warren was a terrific ballhandler and excellent outside shooter.  Shooting Guard Allen was the third overall NBA draft pick in 1969 behind Alcindor and Neal Walk from Florida.  He earned the nickname 'jack rabbit' for his amazing quickness and jumping ability.  He was best known for his aggressive drives to the basket, but was also an outstanding outside shooter.  'Lucius Allen had about every qualification a player could have at the guard position,' Wooden said.

Forward Lynn Shackelford (10.7 points, 5 rebounds) was another great outside shooter.  'Shackelford shot extremely well from the corner,' Wooden said, 'taking pressure off Alcindor underneath.'  Forwards Mike Lynn (10.3 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Edgar Lacey (11.9 points, 7.9 rebounds) provided Alcindor help inside.  Super reserve Ken Heitz (5.3 points, 2.3 rebounds) was a great defensive player who could provide a spark off the bench.  Heitz was an Academic All American in 1969.

The first game of the 1968 season, December 2, 1967, UCLA traveled to Wooden's alma mater, Purdue, in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Led by shooting sensation Rick Mount, Purdue gave UCLA quite a scare.  Reserve guard Bill Sweek hit a shot at the buzzer  to give UCLA a narrow 73-71 victory.

The Purdue game must have served as a wake-up call, because UCLA beat their next seven opponents by more than 30 points per game.  The Bruins scored more than 100 points in six of the seven games, but only managed 95 in a 40-point victory over Minnesota.

On January 12, 1968, in a 30-point victory over conference rival California, Alcindor was hospitalized for a scratch on the cornea of his eye.  He missed the next two games against Stanford and Portland, but his teammates stepped up and kept the UCLA winning streak alive.

On January 20, 1968, UCLA brought its 47-game winning streak to Houston to play the also undefeated number two Houston Cougars, led by Elvin Hayes, in what was billed as 'the Game of the Century.'  In the 1967 NCAA tournament, UCLA had knocked out Hayes and Houston 73-58.  After losing the game, Hayes said Alcindor was overrated and couldn't play defense.  The Game of the Century was played in the Houston Astrodome in front of 52,693 fans.  It was the first ever nationally televised regular season college basketball game.

Although still wearing an eye patch from his injury, Alcindor started the game at center for UCLA.  Houston was leading by three at halftime.  In the second half, with Houston leading by two and under two minutes to go, UCLA's shooting guard Lucius Allen was fouled.  He stepped up to the free throw line and made two free throws to tie the game at 69-69.  Then, with 28 seconds left, UCLA reserve Jim Nielsen fouled Elvin Hayes.  Hayes made the free throws and Houston won 71-69.  At the end of the game, Hayes had 39 points, 15 rebounds and 8 blocked shots.  The injured Alcindor scored 15 points and had 12 rebounds, but was a terrible 4 of 18 from the field.  The Game of the Century was the only game of Alcindor's college career where he shot less than fifty percent.  To add insult to injury, although Hayes wasn't guarding Alcindor, Hayes blocked three of Alcindor's shots.

After the game, Elvin Hayes said 'I've had a lot of good games, but never one like this.'  Alcindor hung a Sports Illustrated cover with Elvin Hayes shooting a jump shot in his locker as a daily incentive to try harder. 

UCLA cruised through the rest of the regular season.  The only scare came on March 9 against Oregon State.  Oregon State played a slow down game, but UCLA was able to hold on and win 55-52.

UCLA won their first two NCAA tournament games and then got the opportunity for a rematch against Elvin Hayes and the number one Houston Cougars.  Wooden had the Bruins play a diamond and one defense on Hayes, with Lynn Shackelford being the one.  Hayes was held to only 10 points and 5 rebounds.  Alcindor, Allen and Lynn each scored 19 points, and Alcindor had 18 rebounds.  UCLA won easily, 101-69.  In the NCAA Championship game, Alcindor scored 34 points and UCLA crushed number four North Carolina 78-55.  Alcindor was named most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament  for the second year of what would be three years in a row and was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Mike Warren, Lucius Allen and Lynn Shackelford.

The 1968 UCLA Bruins went 29-1 and won Wooden his fourth NCAA Championship in five years.  UCLA outscored their opponents by an average of 93.4 to 67.2 per game.

Name                  Pos    Class    Pts    Reb
Lew Alcindor           C       JR    26.2   16.5
Lucius Allen           G       JR    15.1    6.0
Mike Warren            G       SR    12.1    3.7
Edgar Lacey            F       SR    11.9    7.9
Lynn Shackelford       F       JR    10.7    5.0
Mike Lynn              F       SR    10.3    5.2
Ken Heitz             G/F      JR     5.3    2.3
Jim Nielsen           F/C      JR     4.6    3.3
Bill Sweek             G       JR     3.6    1.2
Gene Sutherland        G       SR     1.6    0.6

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

The 1968 Bruins would likely give the teams of today as much trouble as they gave the teams of 1968, if not more.  Alcindor had a lengthy NBA career.  He is the all-time NBA scoring leader.  Subsequent college superstars like Walton, Sampson and Olajuwan couldn't stop him in the NBA.  It is very unlikely the top college centers of today could stop him either.  The 1968 UCLA team had a pressing, run and gun style.  The shot clock wouldn't have any effect on the Bruins.  As for the three-pointer, Lucius Allen and Lynn Shackelford both frequently took shots that would be behind the three-point arc today.  Their outside shooting ability drew defenders away from Alcindor in 1968.  Today, with the same outside shots being worth three points instead of two, defenses would be even less able to contend with Alcindor.

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