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.
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.)
• 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:
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.
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.
Here was the human pageant: 5-5 Monty Towe, 7-4 Tom Burleson, and everything in between. And here was the human spirit, unbroken despite years under the UCLA jackboot. After the Bruins' seven straight championships, the title went to a team led by neither an Alcindor nor a Bill Walton, but a 6-4 swingman, David Thompson. Suddenly people throughout basketball were using a phrase almost unheard of before, "vertical leap." By proving that anything was possible -- even 42 inches of elevation from a standing start -- the Wolfpack kindled the hopes of every team beyond Westwood that it too could bottle a moment. And the sport soon broke wide open.
The Fab Five wound up as Final Four bridesmaids two years in a row. But from their trendsetting shorts to the lengthy pro careers of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, they put a much more lasting stamp on the game than Duke or North Carolina, the champions that eliminated them. The Fabs split the distance between the black-hat and white-hat champions, UNLV and Duke, that had immediately preceded them, leading fans to line up pro and con. The way Webber, Rose, Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson had consulted with one another before choosing Ann Arbor celebrated the empowerment of the recruited athlete, and prefigured the joint choice of the Miami Heat years later by three marquee NBA free agents. And their surnames graced the backs of so many souvenir jerseys that the Fab Five stand as spiritual godfathers of the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA -- litigation that may wind up being their most lasting legacy.
"The Wonder Five," a unit since their freshman year, went 21-1 as seniors with a crowd-pleasing, post-centered offense in the style of the Original Celtics. Watching them beat CCNY in front of 12,000 fans packed into Manhattan's 106th Infantry Armory that season, a young sportswriter named Ned Irish decided to stage a series of fundraising tripleheaders to benefit the Depression's unemployed. Irish eventually quit to become a full-time promoter, and the doubleheaders he subsequently booked at Madison Square Garden turned the sport into a spectacle. The matchups that featured locals against intersectional opponents -- like Stanford, which in 1936 brought Hank Luisetti and his revolutionary one-hander East -- had a particularly lasting effect. So there's a straight line from the Wonder Five to the creation of a national sport, with capstone events like the NIT and, ultimately, the NCAAs.
It wasn't just that this team went unbeaten and no men's team has done so since. It was the offensive balance, simplicity and soundness of this Hoosiers unit -- as well as IU's Final Four team from the year before, which coach Bob Knight considered even better -- that touched something deep inside coaches everywhere. The Perfect Hoosiers launched a vogue in motion offense that lasted until the three-point shot required a tactical overhaul. Because of the way guys like Scott May, Bobby Wilkerson, Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson ran Knight's offense, A.D.s around the country scrambled to hire his former assistants, including, by Duke, a guy named Mike Krzyzewski. For the next decade, on campuses across the country, you could find reliable choreographies of screens, curls and jump shots.
They blew a nine-point lead in the final 2:12 of regulation against Kansas in the NCAA title game, but that didn't diminish the impact of John Calipari's Tigers and their season-long showcasing of the dribble-drive motion offense. Developed by Vance Walberg, a California juco coach, the DDM was a simple but surpassingly versatile offense. Its four dribble penetrators were perfectly adapted to the travel-team pedigree of the modern player -- a guy who has grown up wanting to "put it on the deck" or "beat him off the bounce." Teams below the college level adopted it, like Hall of Famer Bob Hurley's St. Anthony's High of Jersey City; so did NBA teams like the Nuggets and the Celtics. As Walberg put it, to coach DDM is to teach players "how to play basketball, instead of how to run plays."
Rick Pitino's first title team in Lexington would have to be on this list if only for its having sent nine players -- Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Antoine Waker, Mark Pope, Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner -- to the NBA. Nine years earlier, taking Providence to the Final Four, Pitino hinted at what could be done if you braided the three-point shot to pressure defense; here, with superior talent taking the shots and hunkering down for each stop, his Wildcats showed it. Today defensive length, bottomless depth and an array of outside snipers remain at the top of every coach's wish list.
There's a romance to an unbeaten team, and this edition of the Huskies, with forward Rebecca Lobo as its anchor, went 35-0 on its way to an NCAA title. More than that, Geno Auriemma's first national champions enthralled the nearby Manhattan-based media, thereby influencing the influencers. As 100,000 people showed up to fete the titlists with a parade in downtown Hartford, and the ESPYs named the Huskies as Team of the Year, the afterglow from UConn's success set up the attention paid to the U.S. women's gold-medal run at the Atlanta Olympics a year later. And that team -- which included Lobo and a brace of veterans of international play -- led directly to the founding of the WNBA. UConn has won six titles since, proving that a women's dynasty can be built anywhere.
The team's style had its limits, no more so than in the '88 Olympics, where the John Thompson-coached U.S. discovered that mature Europeans couldn't be intimidated in the same way the Hoyas caused Big East opponents to back down. But from the proliferation of grey undershirts in homage to Patrick Ewing, to the spike-collared hound logo's emergence as a must-have urban fashion accessory, to the way even non-basketball fans cocked an ear to listen to Thompson on any subject, few teams made their way into the culture as thoroughly as the purveyors of Hoya Paranoia. Thanks to Georgetown and Thompson, largely white institutions would become more and more comfortable embracing a predominantly black sport.
During their 27-1 season, the Tigers beat Niagara by scoring every basket on an assist. George Will devoted a column to their backcuts, dribble handoffs and drift picks. The secretary in the Princeton basketball office fielded 70 inquiries a week from high school and youth coaches looking for an instructional video or playbook. "If North Carolina or Kansas ran our offense, they'd be incredible at it," center Steve Goodrich said in the middle of that season. "The passes we throw for layups, they'd be throwing to the rim and dunking." Hold that thought: Within a few years, N.C. State would reach the NCAAs for the first time in 11 years by using it. Florida and Louisville would install Princeton sets. And the offense found its way to NBA teams from the Bucks to the Timberwolves to the Kings (whom former Princeton coach and Hall of Famer Pete Carril, the system's mad scientist, served as an assistant). In 2002, after assistant coach Eddie Jordan moved from Sacramento to New Jersey, he prevailed on his new boss, Byron Scott, to install the offense, and with it the Nets doubled their win total en route to the NBA Finals. This season, with the Lakers making use of it, the Princeton offense shows no signs of abating.
Only a few years earlier, with 6-10 Bob (Foothills) Kurland, the Aggies had won back-to-back national titles; this team fell one game short. So why is it on the list? With this group coach Hank Iba proved that he had turned A&M into the most reliably stingy defensive program in the country and didn't need a big man to do it. Young coaches prized a spot at the knee of "Mr. Iba" as an unrivalled opportunity to learn, and protégés fanned out from Stillwater, taking "the swinging gate" (a man-to-man defense with help principles) throughout the Midwest and beyond. The Ibaesque defensive mindset remains characteristic of college hoops today.