While the late 1930s was the beginning of the national college tournaments, the 1940s saw a direct competition between them. In the 1940s, there were two strong tournaments (the NCAAs and the NIT) but neither had yet developed into anything close to what we now know as March Madness.
The 1940 season saw USC named Helms National Champions and Indiana named as Premo-Porretta’s pick. Colorado took home the title of the 6-team NIT, winning just two games to do so (over DePaul and Duquesne). The Buffs then entered the NCAAs, where they lost to both USC and Rice. USC went 20-3, but they fell to Kansas 43-42 in the NCAA semis. In the NCAA final, Indiana took down the Jayhawks for the NCAA title. But the 20-3 Hoosiers finished behind 16-4 Purdue in Big Ten play, so there is some question as to whether the Hoosiers were even the best team in their own conference. Although Purdue had a better league record (10-2 to Indiana’s 9-3), the Boilermakers dropped a game to USC in non-conference play and Indiana swept them. USC has a better argument to the national championship than Purdue and Colorado, and Indiana has a better argument than USC. The Hoosiers are the 1940 national champs.
GDB National Champions: Indiana
Clair Bee’s Long Island Blackbirds continued their excellent play in the 1941 season, going 25-2 and taking home the NIT Championship after winning all three tournament games by at least 12 points. Premo-Porretta selected Long Island as the national champions. Helms, meanwhile, went with 20-3 Wisconsin, who won the Big Ten by one game over defending NCAA Champions Indiana. The Badgers captured the NCAA Championship after beating Dartmouth by 1, Pittsburgh by 6, and Washington State by 5. The only common opponent between the two was Butler. Long Island beat them by 11 and Wisconsin beat them by 5. Both teams won five games over teams ranked in the Premo-Porretta top 25. Both teams also lost one game to a top 25 team, but Long Island’s was versus a top 10 opponent at Madison Square Garden, while Wisconsin lost to #25 Pittsburgh in Madison, Wisconsin. While Long Island lost to unranked 11-6 Michigan State in a game comparable to Wisconsin’s loss at 11-9 Minnesota, Wisconsin also lost on the road 40-30 to a 2-13 Marquette team. Wisconsin had one additional loss on the year, by far the worst loss of the two, five less wins, and arguably slightly less great wins (three top 15 wins to Long Island’s four). The NIT was also a stronger tournament than the NCAAs. Six of the eight NIT teams were ranked in the Premo-Porretta top 15, while only four NCAA teams were in the top 20. Wisconsin is worthy of their NCAA Championship, but NIT Champion Long Island was the most successful team of the season.
GDB National Champions: Long Island
With the U.S. now involved in battle in World War II, basketball was not the top thing on everyone’s mind. But the fourth NCAA Championship was won by Stanford, while the fifth NIT was taken by the West Virginia Mountaineers. Both Helms and Premo-Porretta chose Stanford for the national title, but West Virginia also claims a 1942 national championship. Stanford had the superior win percentage at 28-4 overall to West Virginia’s 19-4, and one of Stanford’s losses, at home to Athens Club, was against a non-collegiate team. West Virginia also lost at 9-8 Washington & Jefferson, arguably the worst loss by either team (though Washington & Jefferson would finish 3rd in the next season’s NIT). Another factor favoring Stanford is elite neutral court wins over the number 2, 3, and 5 ranked teams in Premo-Porretta, all of which occurred in the 8-team NCAA Tournament. But West Virginia won four games over ranked foes to Stanford’s three. None of Stanford’s collegiate losses were to a ranked team, but one of West Virginia’s was (Penn State). All four Stanford losses were at home, while all four West Virginia losses were in true road games. And while West Virginia’s tournament opponents were not all in the top five, defending NIT Champ Long Island (25-3) was 4th, Western Kentucky (29-5) was 7th, and Toledo (23-5) was 13th. There are some legitimate arguments on behalf of both teams. And while a national title for Stanford is appropriate, so is one for West Virginia.
GDB Co-National Champions: Stanford & West Virginia
While the sailors of the U.S. Navy were protecting the world from fascist rule, Kenny Sailors was taking the basketball world by storm. The 1943 Wyoming Cowboys captured the NCAA Championship. Wyoming slid past Oklahoma and Texas in tight quarterfinal and semifinal matchups before easing past Georgetown, 46-34, in the NCAA final at Madison Square Garden. The previous evening, St John’s captured the NIT title after demolishing Toledo, 48-27. With both teams already in New York City, famed promoter Ned Irish organized a Red Cross Benefit Game between 31-2 Wyoming and 21-3 St John’s. Proceeds would go towards the war effort. After an evenly played matchup that needed overtime to determine a victor, Wyoming emerged victorious, 52-47. While Wyoming is the Helms title selection, Premo-Porretta went with 17-1 Illinois. The Illini went a perfect 12-0 in Big Ten play, though they never met 18-2 Indiana because three Illinois starters were drafted into the war, cutting the Illini’s season short. While Illinois was very impressive in the games they did play, going undefeated against collegiate opponents, they did not beat any teams that finished ranked. Other than a win over 15-5 Detroit, none of their collegiate opponents posted a record better than 12-9 Wisconsin. While Wyoming’s schedule was not great, the Cowboys beat #4 St John’s and #7 Georgetown on neutral courts, and they also won two highly impressive games at the national AAU Champion Phillips 66 Oilers (by a point each). They also beat Texas, the Southwest Conference Champions, and Oklahoma, the Big Six runner-up to Kansas (who also did not play in the post-season due to the war). In addition, they dominated at 12-2 Rochester, 68-44. They also won at 19-8 Denver and handed 15-7 BYU three of its losses. Nobody knows what would have happened if Illinois and Kansas (a combined 22-0 in league games) played in the postseason with full rosters. But based on what did happen, the NCAA Champion Wyoming Cowboys had the nation’s most successful season.
GDB National Champions: Wyoming
Defending champion Wyoming was unable to play a 1944 season because military enlistments so severely damaged their talent pool. in the NIT, Utah fell to 19-2 Kentucky in the first round, 46-38. The Wildcats were upended themselves in the semifinals, losing to eventual NIT Champs St John’s 48-45. In the final, St John’s beat DePaul (Premo-Porretta #5) 47-39. While Utah was a first round loser, their season continued by happenstance. In an unfortunate accident, two Arkansas players were struck by a car. Although Utah had already turned down an NCAA bid in favor of an NIT berth, they replaced the Razorbacks at the last moment. It changed Utah basketball forever. Missouri finished just 5-5 in Big Six play, but the 10-9 Tigers battled Utah in the first round with Utah picking up a 10-point win. In the semis, Utah defeated 14-4 Big Six Champion Iowa State, 40-31. In the championship game, behind 22 points from second-team All-American Arnie Ferrin, Utah captured the NCAA title in a 42-40 overtime win over 19-2 Dartmouth. In another Red Cross Benefit Game, Utah beat St John’s, 43-36, to win the competition between NCAA and NIT champions. Utah finished the year 22-4 after playing a schedule that was made up of almost entirely non-collegiate teams until the post-season. Other than the NIT loss to Kentucky, all of their losses were to non-collegiate opposition. But neither Helms nor Premo-Porretta selected Utah for the national title. Both went with 15-0 Army, who was unable to play in the post-season because of wartime travel restrictions. Army also defeated St John’s this season, 49-36 (by six more points than Utah). They also scored victories over Navy (#18 in Premo-Porretta) and Penn (#17), as well as wins over 11-5 Colgate and 11-4 Rochester. Army did, however, play 13 of 15 games at home. At season’s end, both teams had three victories over Premo-Porretta top 20 teams and no losses to an unranked collegiate team. Arguments could be made in favor of either team. A split title is fitting.
GDB Co-National Champions: Army & Utah
The last year of World War II saw the beginning of an Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) dynasty. Led by legendary coach Henry Iba and big man Bob Kurland, the 27-4 Aggies captured the NCAA Championship after rolling through Utah, Arkansas, and NYU for the crown. In the NIT, 21-3 DePaul beat West Virginia, Rhode Island, and Bowling Green to take the title. But one team was conspicuously absent from the post-season, 17-1 Iowa. The Big Ten Champion Hawkeyes skipped the post-season due so the students could focus on their academics. Helms selected Oklahoma A&M and Premo-Porretta chose Iowa for the national title. Comparing Oklahoma A&M, DePaul, and Iowa is tough, but it is a bit easier through a direct comparison of DePaul and Iowa. Iowa has a better winning percentage (.944 to .875), but DePaul has a better winning percentage against Premo-Porretta top 25 teams (.778 to .667). Both DePaul and Iowa split with #23 Illinois and beat #9 Notre Dame. After canceling out those games, Iowa did not play another top 25 opponent but DePaul went 5-1 against the top 20. Iowa also played two-thirds of its games in Iowa City and its next best win was either at 9-11 Purdue (6-6 in the Big Ten) or 12-7 Michigan (5-7 in the Big Ten). But DePaul also had wins at 14-5 Long Island and 17-10 Western Kentucky to go with home wins over Western Kentucky and 12-6 West Virginia. DePaul was much more proven against national competition than Iowa. DePaul has the edge over Iowa, but DePaul’s case against NCAA Champion Oklahoma A&M has a big issue; A&M beat DePaul 52-44 in the Red Cross Benefit Game. With the NCAA title and the Red Cross Benefit victory, Oklahoma A&M has an unassailable claim to the national championship. However, the Red Cross games were not considered to be the national championship at the time. Indeed, despite the loss, DePaul claims themselves as the 1945 national champions after winning the NIT. That claim has legitimacy. DePaul had already beaten Oklahoma A&M towards the end of the regular season. They also had three top 10 wins to A&M’s two, seven top 25 wins to A&M’s four, they did not lose to a collegiate team outside of the top 25 (A&M did to Arkansas), and they beat two ranked teams by margins A&M never matched (#19 Rhode Island by 44 and #8 Bowling Green by 17). Oklahoma A&M is a deserved national champion. Despite the Red Cross loss, so is DePaul.
GDB Co-National Champions: DePaul & Oklahoma A&M
For the second consecutive year, Bob Kurland and Oklahoma A&M took the NCAA title. Meanwhile, Kentucky won the NIT in New York City. The Wildcats had an excellent year, winning the SEC regular season and tournament prior to heading to Madison Square Garden. Kentucky finished an impressive 28-2 on the season. While they dropped games to Premo-Porretta #10 Notre Dame in Louisville and Temple in Philadelphia, they did finish with two wins over top 25 teams (#7 West Virginia and #5 Rhode Island in New York). In comparison, Kurland’s A&M had a slightly better winning percentage due to three additional victories (31-2 overall), while also posting six victories over Premo-Porretta top 20 teams. Additionally, A&M racked up two wins over 25-5 Baylor (Southwest Conference Champions) and a victory over 30-6 Pacific Coast Champion Cal. All of that while Okahoma A&M played a home schedule of only eight games (out of 33). While Kentucky lost at Temple, Oklahoma A&M won there. The Aggies’ losses were also quite excusable, to #6 DePaul and #9 Bowling Green. Kentucky’s year may have been national title worthy in a different season, but not when compared to 1946 Oklahoma A&M.
GDB National Champions: Oklahoma A&M
Kentucky headed to New York in 1947 in an attempt to repeat as NIT Champions. After wins over Long Island and Southern Conference Champion NC State, it appeared a repeat was in order. Awaiting Kentucky in the NIT final was Skyline Conference runner-up Utah, who had beaten Duquense and West Virginia by a combined three points for a surprise spot in the championship game. In the NIT final, Utah scored an upset victory, 49-45, capping a marvelous run through the NIT that featured wins over Premo-Porretta’s 5th and 12th-ranked teams, as well as its national championship selection, 34-3 Kentucky. Outside of the three losses Utah handed them, the teams Utah vanquished in New York went a combined 73-5 on the year and their average final ranking in Premo-Porretta was six. The championship run by Utah was an incredible accomplishment, as four of the top six teams in the country competed in the 1947 NIT. But Holy Cross also played in a strong tournament, winning the NCAA Championship. All eight of the teams in the NCAAs finished in the Premo-Porretta top 18, and Holy Cross beat #10 Navy (16-3), #13 CCNY (17-6), and #7 Oklahoma (24-7) to take home the title. It was not quite as impressive of a run as Utah had, but it was a very difficult stretch nonetheless. Holy Cross also had a stronger overall year than Utah. The Crusaders were 4-3 against Premo-Porretta ranked teams, just like Utah. But while Utah lost to 14-10 Utah State and 13-14 San Francisco, Holy Cross did not lose to a team outside the top 15. Holy Cross was also 27-3 overall to Utah’s 19-5, winning 90% of their games versus Utah’s 79%. The Crusaders also scored the biggest true road victory of the two, beating #16 Seton Hall (24-3 on the season). It is fair to say that Utah had the superior tournament run, while Holy Cross had the superior regular season.
GDB Co-National Champions: Holy Cross & Utah
The Louisville Cardinals were swept in three games by Western Kentucky, with the Hilltoppers winning the Kentucky Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association title over the Cardinals. Louisville went on to win the NAIB Tournament by defeating John Wooden-coached Indiana State in the final, and Louisville claims a national championship for the 1948 season. The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, went to the NIT as its top seed. In the NIT semis, 1-loss Western Kentucky (who finished 3rd in Premo-Porretta) was handed its second loss by 3-loss St Louis, who many considered the pre-tournament favorite with NYU (#6 in Premo-Porretta). In the final, led by the play of All-American “Easy” Ed McCauley, St Louis defeated NYU 65-52 to capture the NIT and earn a bid in the Olympic Trials (for a shot at playing in the Summer Games). In the NCAAs, Kentucky entered the 8-team tournament with only two losses and some very impressive winning margins. The Wildcats roared through the field, winning the title and a bid in the Olympic Trials. While Kentucky beat NAIB Champ Louisville 91-57 in the Olympic Trials, the dream matchup versus St Louis never happened since the Billikens’ administration did not want the team to miss more class time than they already had. Kentucky instead beat NCAA finalists Baylor in the Olympic Trials semis before losing a close one to the AAU’s top team, Oklahoma’s Phillips 66 Oilers (led on the floor by the legendary Bob Kurland). Advancing to the final allowed Kentucky to send five players to the Olympic Games, along with Adolph Rupp as an assistant coach. In comparing the NIT champions to the NCAA champions, though, there are some strong common opponents to compare the 3-loss teams. Kentucky beat Holy Cross by 8 in the NCAA semis, while St Louis beat them by 15. Kentucky played Baylor twice (in the NCAA Championship before playing them in the Olympic Trials), winning by an average of 17 points a game. St Louis beat Baylor by 27 in an early year matchup. Kentucky beat DePaul 74-50, while St Louis split with DePaul. And Kentucky lost at Notre Dame, while St Louis won two games in South Bend over the Irish by an average of 9.5 points. Kentucky had better efficiency numbers, but the Billikens crushed NCAA runners-up Baylor and NCAA semifinalists Holy Cross while also beating elite Bowling Green (Premo-Porretta #13), Western Kentucky, and NYU teams in the NIT. St Louis and Kentucky both finished with 7 wins over Premo-Porretta top 25 teams. Kentucky had two losses outside of the top 25, while St Louis had none. But Kentucky also won four more games against college teams than St Louis did. Both of these teams are worthy champions, and it is unfortunate they never met in the Olympic Trials.
GDB Co-National Champions: St. Louis & Kentucky
Two schools, Kentucky and San Francisco, claim a national championship for 1949. The 1949 season was the first year for the AP Poll and Kentucky was ranked #1 in six of the eight polls taken that year, finishing #1. San Francisco spent the year ranked between 6-10, finishing #8. Both the Wildcats and the Dons headed to New York City for the 12-team NIT. In their first game, Kentucky was knocked off 61-56 by #16 Loyola-Chicago. Eventually, three Kentucky players admitted to shaving points in the game. San Francisco, though, took out three teams, including 10th-ranked Bowling Green and 12th-ranked Utah, to reach the NIT Championship against that same Loyola-Chicago squad. The Dons survived a tight one-point affair to end the season 25-5 and NIT Champions. But Kentucky’s year was not yet complete. Adolph Rupp’s team then competed in the 8-team NCAA Tournament, winning it by beating the 14th, 4th, and 2nd-ranked teams in the AP Poll. This was in addition to victories before NIT play over Bradley and Tulane, who finished 7th and 9th in the AP Poll, respectively. Kentucky had the better overall results, losing three less games and having eight wins over AP final ranked teams to San Francisco’s five. While San Francisco deserves a national championship for winning the tournament that Kentucky entered and lost, the 2-loss Wildcats redeemed themselves in the NCAAs and deserve a share of the crown.
GDB Co-National Champions: San Francisco & Kentucky