Carson: Eighty-eight is unbeatable
Alex Carson | Wednesday, October 29, 2014
In the long litany of basketball lore in the state of Indiana, there are two dates that stand alone. March 20, 1954 is one of them — Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper later made a movie based on it. The other? Jan. 19, 1974.
Eighty-eight and one.
Before going any farther, I’d like to note that I’m not actually following the assignment. To debate about the most unbreakable record would be … boring. I could talk about any one of Cy Young’s numerous records or name an actually unbreakable record — like a 109-yard touchdown in football.
But back to that night. It was a matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation — John Wooden’s top-ranked UCLA Bruins entered the Joyce Center riding an 88-game winning streak and prepared to face Notre Dame. It had been three years since the Bruins lost, incidentally enough, at the same venue. UCLA had won 72 of the 88 games by double digits — the average margin of victory was 23.5 points. Wooden’s team was led by Bill Walton — one of the best players college basketball has even seen — and backed up by an impressive supporting cast.
But let’s get back to the 88 wins — and why it won’t be broken.
Let’s take a look at a few things. Firstly, the career path that the best players take these days. In 1972, ’73 and ’74, Walton won three consecutive Naismith Awards, one for each season he played at UCLA (freshmen did not play varsity basketball at the time). The long-term career path at the time consisted of spending four years in college, playing three seasons and then being drafted into the NBA.
Today, the best players are “one and done.” And even if the path becomes “two and go” when Adam Silver’s done with his reforms, it still leaves teams in a position where they cannot win 88 games with one, dominant player. Let’s take a look at John Calipari’s Kentucky program — probably the most comparable to Wooden’s UCLA teams as far as getting the top talent goes. Sure, the Wildcats played for the national championship last season, but time after time, they struggle out of the gate, which will happen when dealing with a group of players that have not already spent time together.
In an era where freshmen did not see the court, the first half of each season wasn’t spent trying to get the best players familiar with a system; coaches had the opportunity to do so with the schemes implemented on their freshmen teams.
So, alright, let’s say that you have a very strong mid-major team like Wichita State. The Shockers went unbeaten through the regular season last year with veteran leadership. Couldn’t they conceivably win 88 games in a row against a more pedestrian schedule during the regular season?
Maybe, but such a team would have to win eight consecutive games from the Sweet 16 onwards while not having the top talent on the court for almost any of those contests. Yeah, it is possible, but the likelihood just is not there. The Shockers will run into teams with more talent at some point in the tournament.
A further reason it would be improbable? The team that won the first year would have to be comprised largely of juniors — a group of players that would have to pick back up next year without losing a step. And if they were to do that during their senior year? The underclassmen would have to come in and win 10 or 12 games to start the next season just to match the record.
Only one team has gotten further than halfway since — UNLV won 45 straight from 1989–91 — and only one team has finished a season undefeated since — Indiana in 1975–76. The likelihood of a team becoming the first to go unbeaten in 40 years and then doing it again? Really low.
Especially in the era of “hoop mixtapes.” Top players don’t go unrecruited and thus, there are more of them bouncing around college basketball. Where there might have been 10 elite players in each class during Wooden’s heyday, multiple teams can put together star-studded classes year after year today.
But it all comes back to that January day in Indiana nearly 41 years ago. UCLA was ranked No. 1. Notre Dame was ranked No. 2. And No. 2 beating No. 1 still lives on to this day as one of college basketball’s biggest upsets.
That’s how dominant UCLA was. And that’s why 88 straight wins will never happen again.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.