I recently examined how good Kentucky’s defense has been this season compared to the best teams in college basketball history. The piece is in SLAM here.
Naturally, the great UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s (winners of 88 straight! Seven straight national championships!) were part of the analysis. And fortunately two of the best Bruins of this era – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes – provided me with some first-hand insight.
I found out that Abdul-Jabbar considered the best UCLA defense he played with to be different from what UCLA’s media guide indicates. Jabbar’s senior team (1968-69) held all of its opponents to an average of 37.4 % field goal shooting and 63.8 points a game. Those numbers were at 38.4% and 67.2 ppg the previous season.
And yet it’s Kareem’s junior year, 1967-68, which he considers the best college defense he played on. He explains:
“That was our most versatile team. The depth and the good athletes made that our best team. The only loss we had was against the University of Houston because I had a sub par game having spent the previous week in the Jules Stein Eye Clinic with an injury. Everyone counted us out until we had the rematch in the NCAA Tournament and beat them by 32 points.I had kept the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Elvin [Hayes] hanging inside my locker for the rest of the season as a reminder and motivator. Since this was the first loss my UCLA teams experienced I didn’t want it to be a repeat occurrence. It must of worked because I only lost two games during my entire college career.”
I’m not one to argue with an authority like KAJ. It’s very possible the ’68 defense was actually better than ’69 relative to how strong its opponents were. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same kind of strength of schedule metric for teams of this era as we do for more recent teams.
The work around, as I detail in SLAM, is to look at how teams performed purely against Associated Press Top 25 foes. Those specific stats often take work to come by, but they are worth it.
Here are other excerpts from my January interview with Abdul-Jabbar, who recently authored the latest installment of his “StreetBall Crew” series for young adults:
Q: I know many rules have changed since the 1960s, but how do you think that [1967-68] defense would have fared against some of the top teams in modern NCAA basketball?
A) I think we would have been just as dominant as we were in the Sixties. I think the fact that our players had to stay in school and could not jump to the NBA enabled them to learn the game in-depth and the one and done players don’t have that type of complete fundamental preparation.
Q) Do you feel like the best UCLA team you played on would have been athletic enough, overall, to beat a modern elite NCAA team?
A) Modern elite NCAA teams do not feature players who have stayed through their junior and senior years and lack the in-depth competence of a team that has upper classmen. I still think we would have to be considered as one of the best teams that ever played college ball.
Q) On the defensive end, what similarities do you see between the 2014-15 Kentucky team and your best defensive UCLA team? Are there any current Wildcats (or Wildcats on the 2010 or 1996 teams) that remind you of any Bruins on that team (in style of play, physicality or both)?
A) I haven’t seen the Wildcats play recently so I can’t compare them, but I do know that they are dominant team from the way they whipped UCLA and held them to 7 points in a half.
Q) In your opinion, what are the best two or three defensive teams in all of NCAA history?
A) Bill Russell’s 1956 USF team*, John Wooden’s first NCAA championship in 1964 and my UCLA 1968 team are the three best. None of the modern teams would have been able to compete with Bill Russell’s teams or the UCLA teams because they lack the cohesion you get from staying in a program for four years. Bill Russell’s team featured two of the best defensive players that ever played in the NBA, namely Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The 1964 UCLA team was undefeated – need I say more ?
*I would love to see how this team performed against Top 25 foes. Unfortunately, those box scores appear to be missing as of now. We do know for sure is that USF ’56 was very, very good, holding all foes to 31% shooting and 52 points a game.
Stay tuned for more excerpts from the Jamaal Wilkes interview, and some details numbers from my all-time teams comparison.