It goes without saying that John Wooden’s UCLA teams were dominant. Ten NCAA tournament titles in 12 seasons, a 205-5 record between 1966 and ’73? Dominant’s the only word that applies.
Even better? Those teams won playing different styles, and they played to win. No one wants to root for Goliath, but it must’ve been impossible to watch those teams and not enjoy it.
Whether it was the pell-mell, full-court pressing style of the early year, the center-driven reigns of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, or the cohesive, team-oriented groups led by Sidney Wicks, the Bruins always brought it. And these were teams that didn’t have a three-pointer or the shot clock.
As John Feinstein wrote for the Washington Post, Wooden did it all:
Wooden won with more talent and more size than the opposition, and he won with less talent and size than the opposition. He won playing fast, and he won playing slow. On the rare occasions when he did lose, he never blamed his players or the officials. He was as gracious in defeat as he was in victory.
Of those 10 title teams, none averaged fewer than 81.3 points per game (’73 version) and usually took around 73 shots a game. For comparison’s sake, this year’s Duke team took about 60 shots a game and averaged 77.3 points a game.
His most prolific scoring title team was the ’72 squad, which put up 94.6 points per game. His first championship team in ’64 averaged 88.9 points an outing. And it’s that first title team that would’ve been the most entertaining. Think Rick Pitino’s famed Kentucky squads, just shorter.
Wooden says UCLA was capable of winning an NCAA tournament for 10 years before that ’64 finally got one. So what made the difference? Turn to Sports Illustrated’s Alexender Wolff, who wrote the most interesting Wooden tribute of the weekend:
After a loss to Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, [assistant coach Jerry] Norman caucused with his boss. He argued that, imposing as it might be, a full-court man-to-man forces an offense to advance the ball with the dribble, which chews up time. If UCLA really wanted to send gas to a game’s engine — to hasten changes in possession and shorten each possession itself — the team needed not a man press, but a zone press, with the kinds of traps that only a foolish dribbler would try to slalom through. Opponents would have to advance the ball upcourt by passing it, and human nature being what it is, those passes would eventually become lobs and crosscourts, hurried and careless. UCLA’s quick hands, long arms and sprinters’ speed would lead to deflections and interceptions, and soon the ball would be headed the other way. The Bruins would score, and the way they’d score, suddenly and as a result of their opponents’ turnovers, would sow, as Wooden later put it, “disharmony and disunity.”
There was more. Force a turnover as a result of a zone press, Norman intuited, and the five Bruins would be spread across the breadth and length of the floor, the better to take advantage of [Walt] Hazzard’s skill in transition. Size may be an advantage in basketball, but it dissipates when spread over the court. And if the Bruins took a lead with a flurry of baskets, their opponents would fall behind, and to catch up would have to adopt a faster tempo — playing right into UCLA’s hands. “I laid out the rationale,” says Norman, who had used a 2-2-1 zone press successfully with his Brubabe freshmen. “We had no size, and we played in a conference where teams liked to walk the ball up the floor. The idea wasn’t to steal the ball, remember. That would be an ancillary benefit. It was to increase tempo.”
And poof! The 2-2-1 press was instituted and UCLA had some defense to pair with its already up-tempo offense.
Later on, when big guys like Alcindor and Walton roamed the court, the Bruins slowed it down (some), but were no less prolific on offense or in winning championships.
Think about what it means to have the best players, the best teams and produce the best basketball. We could tangibly point to what we love about hoops.
Of course, if it happened today, they’d get so much publicity and press coverage, I wonder if the backlash would be impossible to avoid. It’d certainly test our limits of ideal hoops.
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