Sunday, March 23, 2014

The End of UCLA's National Title Streak

It's hard to explain how much things have changed in college sports since this day 40 years ago.

When this day dawned in 1974, the UCLA Bruins had won seven consecutive national basketball titles. They had won 38 straight NCAA Tournament games under coach John Wooden since their last national tournament loss, to Arizona State in the spring of 1963, and they had won national championships every year but one — they didn't qualify for the 1966 tournament.

The Bruins were about to play North Carolina State in the 1974 Final Four. If they won, they were likely to be favored to win their eighth straight national championship against the winner of the Kansas–Marquette game. There was no reason to think they wouldn't.

The Bruins owned the NCAA Tournament in those days. When they were in the field — which, admittedly, was smaller in those days, but it excluded teams that were borderline so the talent wasn't spread as thin. Every game was challenging — you could pencil them in for the Final Four every year. Heck, you could go ahead and pencil them in for the national championship game. They had only missed one in 10 years, and they won all the rest.

The only mystery was which teams would join UCLA in the Final Four city — which, in 1974, was Greensboro, N.C., about 70 miles from the North Carolina State campus.

I don't recall anyone from UCLA expressing concern at the time about the game being so near N.C. State's campus. Between 1971 and 1974, UCLA won 88 consecutive games, many of which were road games. You just don't win that many straight games by worrying about playing on someone else's turf.

The Bruins didn't just beat teams. They overwhelmed them. In the late '60s, they were led by 7–foot–2 Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul–Jabbar), then, in the early '70s, by 6–foot–11 Bill Walton, who had perhaps the most amazing national championship game performance ever against Memphis State in 1973.

As great as his performance was (21 of 22 from the field), Walton, playing in his final NCAA Tournament, was about to participate in what Mike Douchant of The Sports Xchange, in 2002, rated the 13th–greatest NCAA Tournament game ever played.

On the surface, it was about as close as a game can be. The score was tied, 35–35, at halftime, then it was tied again, 65–65, at the end of regulation. But, in fact, N.C. State scored in spurts. The Wolfpack had to battle back from an 11–point deficit in the first half and a seven–point deficit in the second half. It wasn't a tight game all the way through.

And, remember, this was more than a decade before college basketball started using a shot clock or added a three–point shot.

Walton wasn't as dominating as he had been against Memphis State, but he was still effective, hitting 13 of 21 from the field and hitting all three of his free throw attempts.

The eventual Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the tournament, N.C. State's David Thompson, was nearly as effective. He hit 12 of 25 field goal attempts and made four of six free throws.

Their duel 40 years ago today really was the stuff that legends are made of. N.C. State won by three in double overtime. In hindsight, N.C. State's 76–64 triumph over Marquette in the championship game two days later was rather anticlimactic.

Before the Wolfpack claimed the national title against Marquette, UCLA got back on the winning track with a 78–61 victory over Kansas in the third–place game.

Wooden and the Bruins came back the following year to claim the national title one more time.

But an era, as Sports Illustrated proclaimed, was over. In the 39 years since Wooden's last national championship, the Bruins have won only one national title. In fact, what once was a routine trip to the national championship game has only happened three times for the Bruins since Wooden retired.

Perhaps that explains how much times have changed.

But who knows what will happen in the future — perhaps the near future? The 2013–14 Bruins won their NCAA Tournament opener in San Diego Friday night. They will face Stephen F. Austin in today's second–round game.

They might win their second national crown since the Wooden era ended. But two national titles in 39 years is a far cry from seven titles in seven years.

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