1968 Final Four: #1 Houston heads to Los Angeles undefeated

No seed* | Midwest Region | Final Record: 31-2 | 1968 Full Bracket (PDF)

*Seeding did not begin until the 1978-79 season.

DateScoreOpponentLocation
3/9W - 94-76Loyola (Chi)Nielsen Fieldhouse
Salt Lake City
3/15W - 91-75LouisvilleLevitt Arena
Wichita, KS
3/16W - 103-68TCULevitt Arena
Wichita, KS
3/22L - 69-101UCLALA Sports Arena
3/25L - 85-89Ohio StateLA Sports Arena

Top-ranked and 28-0 Houston cruised into the NCAA Tournament in 1968. The Cougars beat UCLA in the Game of the Century to take over the #1 spot in the AP rankings. After The Game, UH held on to the #1 ranking by scoring 100+ points in every regular-season game remaining. The Coogs won those games by an average of 38 points and scored 115 ppg.

During that stretch, Houston set a major-college scoring record with 168 points against Valparaiso in late February. Elvin Hayes scored 62, on 28 of 36 shooting (77.8%) and pulled down 27 rebounds.

Hayes would be named AP Player of the Year ahead of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Pistol Pete Maravich from LSU. Houston received an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament on February 21st despite having five games left in the regular season. Houston traveled to Salt Lake City for their first-round game.

At the time, the tournament used an imbalanced bracket with 23 schools participating. Fourteen teams played first-round games, while nine were given byes. For example, there were seven teams in the East Region, with six playing a first-round game. North Carolina received a bye then played their two regional games in Raleigh, just 25 miles from campus.

Other than UH, the other three Final Four teams had first-round byes.

Opening Rounds

Houston would play in SLC (1 game) and Wichita (2 games) before heading to Los Angeles for the Final Four.

Houston 94, Loyola 76

The Cougars easily beat Loyola in the opening round, although they snapped their 100-point streak. Salt Lake Tribune sports editor John Mooney said UH was an “awesome display of muscle and height.” He went on:

“As a basketball opera, the Houston performance was something out of Wagner.

“And the Big E, Elvin Hayes, was the soloist.”

Elvin hit on 20 of 28 shots to score 49 points while grabbing 27 rebounds. UH led 53-34 at the half and extended it to 63-38 when Loyola’s best player, Jim Tillman, was ejected for punching Ken Spain in the nose.

Salt Lake Tribune Sports Front

Houston 91, Louisville 75

The Coogs next went to Wichita for back-to-back games in the Midwest Regional. UH faced Louisville in the semifinal, pitting Big E against All-American Wes Unseld. A student reporter for the Louisville Cardinal student newspaper traveled with the team and journaled the trip. At first glance, he was unimpressed with the Cougars:

UH’s 1-3-1 defense stifled the Cardinals. After trading baskets early, UH went on a 25-3 run before UL clawed back to within 13. But Big E’s offense and rebounding and Don Chaney’s defense proved to be too much. Houston forced 22 turnovers and kept the ball away from Unseld all night.

Unseld (31) and Hayes (44)

Hayes had 35 points and 24 boards in the game. “That son-of-a-gun is fantastic the way he kisses the ball off the backboard,” Louisville coach John Dromo said about Elvin.

Houston 103, TCU 68

The next night, the Coogs came out firing and buried TCU early. UH led 15-0 before Horned Frog coach Johnny Swaim called timeout. Cougar fans in Wichita chanted “We want a shutout! We want a shutout!” until TCU finally scored. The score was 27-8 before anyone other than center James Cash scored for the Frogs. Cash was the first African American basketball player in SWC history. UH led 59-26 at the half as TCU shot just 24%.

Hayes went for 39 points and 25 rebounds. The local Wichita Eagle said that the Big E used “the glass backboard like it was the dice table in a gambling house.”

Ken Spain had 16 points and 16 boards.

Elvin gets fouled – Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Final Four

The Houston Cougars arrived at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles midweek. Coach Lewis participated in a press conference there on Thursday before heading to the LA Sports Arena for shoot-around. Unfortunately, the 9.5-mile drive to the Arena took forever in LA traffic, and the team was 20 minutes late for their designated court time.

“It took us a lot longer to get here than I ever dreamed of,” Lewis told reporters when he walked onto the court. “This town’s a little bigger than Arp.”

The LA Times previewed the game all week long.

The game stirred up local controversy because the NCAA mandated a blackout in LA. UCLA fans were accustomed to watching home games on tape delay but were not thrilled by this decision. More puzzling, the NCAA had no intention of blacking out the national title game.

At 11 p.m. Houston time, the game finally tipped off. UCLA fans had been waiting since January 20th for their rematch. But the game did not live up to its hype. UH players were lethargic while the Bruins were fired up. The final score, 101-69, was as unexpected as the new defense UCLA threw at Houston.

Since the Game of the Century, John Wooden had plotted to devise a defense specifically for Elvin. He called it the Diamond and One, an ordinary zone but with a specific player (Lynn Shackelford) shadowing Hayes. Shackelford was much quicker than Elvin was used to seeing.

Elvin scored just 10 points, the lowest of his college career. With Shackelford hounding him, the Big E did not get his first shot off until seven minutes had been played. UCLA pressed down the floor before reverting to the zone, and it caused 11 Cougar turnovers in the first half.

UCLA was determined to get their revenge. And they were dominant.

“I feel like a dead man,” Lewis said quietly after the game, before adding, “that was the greatest exhibition of basketball I’ve ever seen.”

The night after the loss to UCLA, the Cougars had to go back to the Sports Arena for the third-place game. Houston faced Ohio Sta,te but UH did not have much left in the tank and los, 89-85. Elvin finished with 34 and 16 but it wasn’t enough.

Despite the poor showing in the Final Four, UH’s 1967-68 season was one of the best in school history.

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