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:
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.