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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...GUY LEWIS TRIBUTE AND AMERICAN UPDATE
 
                                     by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


In all of our publishing seasons at TGS, we recall few as fondly as 1967-68. Especially in college sports for what were truly special and memorable campaigns in both football and basketball. In football it was the year of O.J. Simpson and Gary Beban and the USC-UCLA "Battle of Los Angeles" for the top spot in the polls, of the "Miracle Hoosiers" of Indiana, and the rebirth of Oklahoma as a national power. In hoops, it was right in the middle of the great John Wooden dynasty at UCLA, with perhaps the Wizard of Westwood's finest title team, led by Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The most intriguing storyline of the 1967-68 basketball season, however, would not necessarily belong to Wooden or his Bruins. Rather, a brash newcomer on the scene from the southwest would steal the headlines for much of the season and play a major role in what we at TGS have always believed to be the true "Game of the Century" in college hoops, or all of college and televised sport, for that matter.

So, when former University of Houston HC Guy Lewis passed away last week at the age of 93, all sorts of memories began to cross our minds from that unforgettable season of 48 years ago. That's because Lewis, and his Houston Cougars, briefly took over the national headlines in the late '60s while transforming a region that had previously viewed basketball as something to do between the football season and spring football. After Lewis and the Cougars burst upon the scene, however, basketball suddenly had its own wider berth in Texas.

Lewis' accomplishments went far beyond that 1967-68 season, games from which we will recall in a moment. Those late '60s Houston teams were of course paced by the great Elvin Hayes, who led the Cougars to back-to-back Final Fours in '67 and '68. Hayes was also part of a recruiting class that included Don Chaney and would break the color barrier at UH. Lewis began to get the idea that the time was right to break the barrier as early as the 1962-63 season when hosting eventual national champion Loyola-Chicago, which featured four black starters on its team. When the Ramblers won in Houston, Lewis decided then and there that he had to make the bold move and begin to enlist black athletes for his basketball team, at the time a risky proposition with boosters, fan bases, and administrators. But the next year, Lewis would make it a priority to recruit Hayes and Chaney, who would enroll at UH in the fall of 1964 and help further fan the winds of change that were blowing through Texas and the entire region.

Lewis made five more Big Dance trips in the '70s and would have another major hurrah in the early '80s with three straight Final Four teams, including the electrifying "Phi Slama Jamma" edition of 1982-83 featuring Clyde Drexler and Akeem (before he added the "H" at the front of his first name) Olajuwon, though Lewis' Cougars would never claim the big prize of the national title. Their upset loss in the finale to Jim Valvano's Cinderella NC State in 1983 is regarded as one of the Big Dance's all-time shockers. Lewis returned to the final game the following year and lost to Georgetown, and would retire two years later, but his place in hoops history was secure.

It took a while to rightly elect Lewis to the Springfield Basketball HOF, but the old Houston coach finally made it in 2013, and was alive to experience the honor. By that stage, Lewis' critics who claimed he couldn't win the big one were long since silenced. Hoop insiders everywhere knew that Lewis laid down some important markers in the sport and was one of the most important figures in the past half-century of college hoops. Not to mention being one of its more colorful characters, with his plaid sport coats and happy-go-lucky manner with the press. We're not exaggerating when we say they don't make them like Guy Lewis anymore.

As a tribute to the former Houston coach, we are blending a couple of past feature stories from TGS Hoops that recalled the memorable 1967-68 season, and the pair of games vs. UCLA in particular. (Lewis' son Vern was also a guard on that great Cougar team.) Especially the first meeting on January 20, 1968, at the Houston Astrodome, a venue that boggled the mind at the time for a basketball game. Guy Lewis, of course, was right in the middle as a central figure of that promotion that changed college hoops and televised sport forever.

Following are past TGS recollections from "The Game of the Century" vs. UCLA as well as what would happen in a rematch at the Final Four that few seem to recall, with a concluding section that provides a brief early-season update on teams to watch in the American Athletic, Houston's current conference.


We'll challenge Seth Davis, Michael Wilbon, and any others who want to nominate that overhyped (in retrospect) 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State title game and its importance to the sport against a few other contests we believe more rightly deserve that mantle of "The Game That Transformed The Game."

Many college hoop aficionados will offer UCLA-Houston, January 20, 1968, as the crown jewel of games. And it can be reasonably argued that UCLA-Houston I in 1968 (they were to meet again in the NCAA Final Four two months later), more than any other game, changed the course of college basketball.

The on-court dynamics of that 1968 clash were delicious enough. Top-ranked UCLA, led by C Lew Alcindor (before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), was the defending national champion and entered the contest on a 47-game winning streak, on course to break USF's all-time win streak of 60 in a row before the end of the season. Houston, coached by the colorful Guy Lewis, was ranked No. 2 and was led by its own All-American, F Elvin Hayes. The site was the Astrodome, a mind-boggling proposition at the time for a basketball game, especially because its construction had never envisioned a basketball-seating configuration. (By the way, a trench had to be dug around the court for team benches, broadcasters, and the press corps because the courtside presence would otherwise make it impossible for many in premium box seats--still 40 or so yards away--to see the action!).

But the anticipation for the clash had been building since the previous fall, when the matchup was announced. (By comparison, the 1979 MSU-ISU game had practically no buildup--just the two days between the national semifinals and championship game). There was no problem selling tickets for UCLA-Houston, as 52,693 fans, many of whom needed binoculars to see the action, packed the dome. There was added intrigue, too, regarding Alcindor's status, as he had suffered an eye injury eight nights earlier (courtesy of an inadvertent thumb from Cal G Rusty Critchfield) and hadn't contributed since. Still, the Bruins were perceived as dominant, though the pointspread reflected questions regarding Alcindor's condition, with UCLA dropping from an opening 12, to 10-point favorites at tipoff.

The surreal setting for the matchup (which also included what, for TV viewers, was a unique delayed reaction from the pro-Houston crowd to each Cougar basket, simply because it took the sound a bit longer to travel in the cavernous Astrodome), didn't detract from the game. If anything, it may have enhanced the drama, which was significant. The Cougars were ready to "deal" that night, and Hayes was magnificent, scoring 29 in the first half, clearly outplaying the handicapped Alcindor. But the Bruins were within 46-43 at the intermission. Hayes' pace slowed in the second half, yet the drama accelerated, as neither could pull away. Tied twice in the final minutes, the Cougars went ahead for good, 71-69, thanks to a pair of Hayes FTs with :28 to play, and hung on to win by that score in the dramatic final seconds. Hayes finished with 39 points; Alcindor 15.

(Two months later, with a healthier Alcindor, UCLA earned its revenge, and then some, in the Final Four, routing the Cougars 101-69, at the L.A. Sports Arena. But the indelible mark on the college game had been made in January at the Astrodome.)

The significance of UCLA-Houston, however, can hardly be measured by what transpired on the court. After that game, college basketball suddenly assumed a prominent position on the American sports map. UCLA-Houston made the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week ("Big E Over Big Lew"), which, like Bird's appearance on the SI cover for the college hoop preview issue in late '78, was in those days a significant validation of its importance. It was the first nationally-televised regular-season game (syndicated by Eddie Einhorn's TVS), a precursor to high-profile intersectionals that eventually became part of the college hoop landscape. Major networks took notice. By 1969, NBC would secure rights to the NCAA Tournament. TVS (eventually to form a partnership with NBC in '75) and a variety of regional syndicators flourished in the next few years, giving college hoops a stronger foothold on TV and gaining further attention from major networks. It was also the first truly made-for-TV college hoop event. "Dome basketball," unheard of prior to 1968 (when the Astrodome was the only domed stadium!) and still a far-fetched notion into the '70s, eventually became commonplace--domes are now required sites for all Final Fours. And the national TV audience got its first introduction that night to someone who would eventually become one of its most recognizable play-by-play names, Dick Enberg. (By the way, Enberg's color analyst that night was ex-LSU and St. Louis Hawk star Bob Pettit).

Indeed, our first look at what a spectacle college basketball was to become came that night at the Astrodome in 1968....not at Salt Lake City eleven years later!


We forgive those of the ESPN generation who might not realize there was a second meeting between UCLA and Houston in 1968, after the memorable Astrodome game played on January 20 of that year. We have never minimized the importance of Houston's 71-69 win that night in January; in fact, we have written about it on these pages before, and consider it to be perhaps the most significant college basketball game of our lifetime. But we also know the most important college game that 1967-68 season between Elvin Hayes' Cougars and Lew Alcindor's Bruins didn't take place at the Astrodome. Rather, it was two months later at the L.A. Sports Arena in the national semifinal game. And in the rematch, it would be UCLA with the hometown edge.

Although you might not know it from the way the media seem to have conveniently forgotten about UCLA-Houston other than the Astrodome classic, the fact is the teams met in Final Fours in both 1967 and 1968. UCLA won handily in 1967 at Louisville, 73-58. But the Houston regular-season win in January of '68 was such an overwhelming storyline, partly because of UCLA's 47-game win streak being snapped by the Cougars, and also because of the novelty of the Astrodome venue, as well as being the first truly nationally-syndicated TV game, that anticipation for an inevitable Final Four rematch began to build almost as soon as the Astrodome game was complete. So, when the Final Four eventually rolled around that March, the revenge-minded Bruins were worked into a lather, eager to get another shot at Houston on something close to UCLA's home venue (the downtown Sports Arena, only 12 miles from the Westwood campus, had been the Bruins' home court until Pauley Pavilion opened in 1965), as well as Alcindor being healthy for the rematch after being limited by eye problems in the first meeting when Hayes stole the headlines (and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, shooting over Alcindor) while scoring 39 points in the 71-69 Cougar win.

(Alcindor, by the way, would keep that "Big E over Big Lew" cover of SI posted in his locker for the remainder of the season in hopes of getting a chance at revenge.)

So excited was Wooden's team about the prospects for a rematch with Houston that the Bruins almost got caught looking ahead in the previous week's West Regional at Albuquerque in the recently-built New Mexico Pit. Las Cruces-based New Mexico State, about three hours south by car or bus, coached by Lou Henson and featuring G Jimmy Collins, used slowdown tactics to put a scare into the Bruins before a late UCLA surge finally put the game away, 58-49, in a Sweet 16 matchup. Properly focused the next night (remember, those were days when the regionals and Final Four were played back-to-back on Friday & Saturday), Alcindor and the Bruins had little trouble vs. Dick Garibaldi's Santa Clara, easing to a 87-66 win and a revenge date with Houston.

As for the still-unbeaten and then top-ranked Cougars, they made quick work of the Midwest Regional field in Wichita. Missouri Valley champion Louisville was expected to offer resistance in the Sweet 16, but was instead trampled by a 91-75 count. The Cardinals had entered with a 12-game win streak and seemed to have the proper elixir for Hayes in brutish frontliner Wes Unseld (ironically to be future teammates on an NBA title-winning Bullets team in 1978). Fans who came from the bourbon and horse country, accustomed to photo finishes, were instead treated to something more resembling the great Damascus running away from the field in the previous year's Preakness, Belmont, and Woodward Stakes. The Cards were held scoreless for more than six minutes of the first half as the Cougars dominated the backboards--and the game.

"I've never seen a team hit the offensive boards the way they do," said Louisville Coach John Dromo. "And I never want to see another one unless it's my own."

The Cougars utilized a sticky 1-3-1 zone, with Hayes underneath to block shots and pull down practically every defensive rebound, while 6'5 G Don Chaney was deployed at the top of the key, using his seemingly sideline-to-sideline wingspread to force more than a dozen Louisville turnovers. The zone kept the middle too clogged for Unseld to operate efficiently, although some wondered whether such tactics might not work in a rematch vs. UCLA, as because of his height, Alcindor had another dimension available to him. As for Chaney, it was doubtful that he would cause UCLA Gs Mike Warren and Lucius Allen as much grief as he caused Louisville's guards.

Hayes, though, could not be discounted, as he had another marvelous night against Louisville, scoring 35 points and taking 24 rebounds (two more than Unseld). The next night, the Cougs blew out TCU in the Midwest Regional title game, and the Final Four rematch was set for Los Angeles.

Dynamics were a bit different than the Astrodome game two months prior; now, Houston was a celebrity team, and with the Final Four on the doorstep to Hollywood, the Cougars took advantage of their new-found fame. Dressed in matching black-and-white-checked double-breasted blazers, the Cougars arrived at LAX and immediately registered in the glamorous Beverly Hilton Hotel. Elvin Hayes and teammate Theodis Lee appeared on ABC's late-night Joey Bishop Show. Center Ken Spain (who would play on the '68 Olympic team at Mexico City) was interviewed for ABC's Dating Game. Hayes and his wife dined at a fine Beverly Hills eatery. A Universal Studios tour was arranged for Hayes, Don Chaney, and their wives. They also visited the Hello Dolly! movie set.

Those would eventually turn out to be the highlights of their trip to Los Angeles. The basketball sure wasn't anything to remember for the Cougs.

The Friday-night semifinal was such a big deal in Los Angeles that several special closed-circuit TV locations, in theaters, much as they would be for major boxing matches of the era, were telecasting UCLA-Houston, since the game was blacked out on L.A. home TV. Scalpers were finding a seller's market at the Sports Arena on game night, fetching as much as $50 per ticket for the most in-demand game nobody seems to remember. Included among the closed-circuit venues was the Bruins' own Pauley Pavilion, which set up a movie screen at one end of the arena and drew almost 9000 fans, who would leave disappointed as the transmission failed, those fans forced instead to listen to the action on KMPC radio as described by the long-time voice of the Bruins, Fred Hessler, or perhaps wait for a tape-delay of the game on local KTLA Channel 5 at 11 PM. A record Sports Arena basketball crowd of 15,742, plus those thousands more watching closed-circuit TV in six locations, awaited the tipoff.

The dynamics were completely different than they were for the Astrodome game, although the Sports Arena floor was the same, as it had been transported almost 1400 miles to the Houston for the January classic. The dominant Alcindor, in particular, was not hindered by eye or any other problems for the rematch. As for UH, it was now without G George Reynolds, the Cougars' best ball-handler, who had been ruled ineligible since the first meeting. Coach Guy Lewis' son Vern, usually one of the first Cougs off the bench while Reynolds was available, would be in charge of the ball-handling duties at the Final Four.

It might not have mattered if Jerry West had suited up in a Houston uniform at the Sports Arena. UCLA won the tip and was never behind, spurting to an early 12-4 lead before Houston rallied to within one point, 20-19, and for a few moments all were ready to settle back to watch what might be a nail-biting replay of the Astrodome classic. But Wooden's Bruins chose that moment to push the accelerator to the floor, and, in the next 4:17, UCLA outscored Houston 17-5. And when F Lynn Shackelford stole the ball and passed to streaking G Lucius Allen for an easy layup to make the score 37-24, the Cougars called time-out as Chaney slammed the ball down in frustration.

Intermittent consultations with Coach Lewis did not help, as UCLA kept tormenting Houston with its full-court press and scoring easily on fast breaks and accurate outside shooting. The lead was up to 22 by the half, 53-31, and grew to 28, to 39, and finally reached its peak at 44 (95-51). If they had not used many substitutes in the last five or six minutes, the Bruins would have won by 50 or 60 points. When it was over, the scoreboard read 101-69 in UCLA's favor. "That's the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen," said Lewis.

Many who had questioned Houston's soft schedule, and what Hayes might do when under real duress, felt somewhat vindicated as the Cougars melted away in front of the angry Bruin onslaught. Credit also was reserved for Wooden, and in particular assistant coach Jerry Norman, for deploying tactics that featured a "diamond-and-one" zone that put Warren at the top of the key, Allen and Mike Lynn on the wings, and Big Lew underneath the basket, leaving Shackelford free to shadow Hayes, who would score only 10 points.

The defense, which Wooden had never used before, stuck with Hayes while leaving some space elsewhere, but the Cougs shot a miserable 28.2% from the floor. Theodis Lee, hampered by fouls early, made only two of 15 shots. UCLA, on the other hand, hit 52% of its shots, and in one of the great examples of scoring balance, all starters tallied between 14 and 19 points. Alcindor, Lynn and Allen each had 19 points, and Lucius, especially, was dazzling. He earned 12 assists, had nine rebounds and seemed to dribble in and out of Houston's one-three-one zone whenever he felt like it. Without his previous eye problems, Alcindor was also his old intimidating self, as he made half his 14 shots from the floor, five of six free throws and took 18 rebounds while closing the paint.

In addition to clamping down on Hayes with the diamond-and-one, UCLA tinkered with its full-court zone press. At the Astrodome, the Cougars were beating it with quick downcourt passes. This time UCLA effectively cut off those downcourt throws, and the Houston guards often tried to dribble out of trouble, which was just what the Bruins wanted.

For whatever reason, the Cougars seemed to be flat, uninspired and too loose. Perhaps they were just overconfident. "In Houston we were worried about playing UCLA," said one player, "But this time it seemed just like another game."

"We just weren't up for it," said Theodis Lee. "I figured before the game that the best we could shoot would be 35%. Our mental attitude wasn't right."

The Bruins, on the other hand, were quietly oh-so-confident. "We haven't really said anything publicly, but we're a vindictive team," said Warren, who would go on to a TV acting career, after the game. "We've been looking forward to this game a long time. And we're not looking past North Carolina. We'll run them back down South, too."

Indeed, in the finale the following night, the Bruins romped past the Tar Heels, who had beaten Ohio State in the first Friday semifinal, by a 78-55 count. As for Houston? Remember, those were also the days of the consolation games. And, for good measure after losing to the Bruins, the Cougars lost to Fred Taylor's Buckeyes, too, 89-95, in the battle for third place.

Indeed, Houston had more fun that week in L.A. before the games began!

MEANWHILE, IN THE AMERICAN...

Houston's present-day conference, the American Athletic, is shaping up to be an intriguing race in 2015-16. A quick look at American teams that have caught our eye in the first few weeks of the season...including those Houston Cougars.

UCONN...More than a few very respected hoop insiders believe the Huskies have the potential to make another deep run in March, as they did two seasons ago for HC Kevin Ollie when emerging as shock national champions. A couple of transfers, 6-7 ex-Cornell F Shonn Miller (12.5 ppg) and 6-2 ex-Seton Hall G Sterling Gibbs (12.3 ppg; all Big East last season and ninth nationally in three-point shooting) have made immediate contributions for Ollie and have softened the departure of last year's leading scorer, G Ryan Boatright. One of last year's transfers, 6-4 jr. G Rodney Purvis (ex-NC State), leads the team at 13.3 ppg, while 6-7 soph Daniel Hamilton is registering 12.3 ppg and 7-0 C Amida Brimah, one of the holdovers from the title team two years ago, remains a fierce defensive force, and has done a better job avoiding foul trouble in the early going, though his scoring remains a work in progress. Ollie's team lost a couple of three-point decisions to Syracuse and Gonzaga in last week's Battle of Atlantic in the Bahamas. While Gibbs and Miller have already fit into the equation, Ollie's depth will improve greatly as a couple of prized frosh, 6-2 G Jalen Adams and 6-10 PF Steven Enoch, increase their contributions off the bench.

HOUSTON...Regional sources have alerted to the Cougars, who appear much improved in the second year of HC Kelvin Sampson's regime. After stumbling to 13 wins a year ago, UH has bolted to 5-0 mark (albeit vs. lesser opposition). No team in the country transformed its backcourt with pre-cooked players quite like the Cougs, whose ready-made imports include transfer Gs Rob Gray (juco combo G; 16.5 ppg), Ronnie Johnson (Purdue; 15.3 ppg), and Damyean Dotson (Oregon; 10 ppg). Meanwhile, holdover 6-8 F Devonta Pollard is almost averaging a double-double (18 ppg & 8 rpg), as the Cougs are hitting better than 50% from the floor and 76% from the FT line. Early days, of course, and the schedule has been forgiving in the first few weeks. Upcoming matchups vs. Rhode Island and LSU will be better indicators if UH is all of the way back and ready to make some noise in the league.

TEMPLE...Before discounting the Owls because of their 3-3 record thru Dec. 4, consider that all of the losses have been to ranked opposition (North Carolina, Butler, and Utah). Last year's transfers G Devin Coleman (ex-Clemson; now 11.2 ppg) and F Jaylen Bond (ex-Texas; now 10 ppg) have upped their scoring averages, as has 6-9 soph Obi Enechionyia, who has more than doubled his scoring output up to 12 ppg. Highly-touted frosh wings Trey Lowe and Levan Alston have already hinted at breakthroughs in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, smooth 6-5 sr. G Quenton DeCosey (14.2 ppg) is a smooth floor operator and a key cog for the past two Owl teams. Then there is shrewd HC Fran Dunphy, who has missed the Dance only three times in nine seasons at Temple. The Owls are still shooting a tick under 40% from the floor, but Dunphy has a variety of scoring options at his disposal this season, and regional sources are not putting it past the savvy coach to have all the gears meshing by the time conference play begins.

TULSA...Regarded as the American's team to watch entering the season, the Golden Hurricane has stumbled twice vs. UA-Little Rock and South Carolina, but recovered to beat Oklahoma State by 10 last Wednesday in Tulsa's first win at Stillwater since way back in 1985. Observers are still keeping an eye on Frank Haith's team that returned all starters and main contributors from last year's 23-win unit, which has been augmented by UIC transfer G Pat Birt, who opened the season with four straight double-digit scoring games. Senior G Shaquille Harrison looks as if he could be in the mix for American MVP honors after scoring 20.2 thru the first six games of the campaign.


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