By the 1950s, the poll era of college basketball was in full swing and the NCAA Tournament was starting to separate itself from the NIT. But even during this decade, March Madness wasn’t quite March Madness yet.
The first season of the 50s saw an undisputed champion with a reputation of ill-repute. City College of New York (CCNY) won both the NIT and the NCAAs, defeating Bradley in both title games. But a point shaving scandal rocked the college basketball world, and New York City, in particular. If there is one moment that hurt Madison Square Garden’s prized NIT in relation to the national NCAAs more than any other, it is this scandal.
GDB National Champions: CCNY
Kentucky won the NCAA title and BYU took home the NIT Championship. Both schools claim the title for this season. Kentucky was number one in the AP Poll most of the season, while BYU was 11th entering the NIT. Following their successful triumph at the NIT, the Cougars entered the NCAAs the following week. BYU fell in the Elite Eight to AP #4 Kansas State, who eventually made it to the finals before losing to Kentucky. The Wildcats were the team of the season, and the NCAAs were the capper.
GDB National Champions: Kentucky
Phog Allen’s last national championship at Kansas came via the school’s first NCAA title. The #8 Jayhawks spent the whole year ranked in the top ten of the AP Poll. They beat TCU by 4, #5 St Louis and Santa Clara by 19, and #10 St John’s by 17 in the NCAA Championship. La Salle also claims this year’s title after a surprise run through the NIT. La Salle was ranked for most of the season before finishing unranked in the AP. In the NIT, La Salle knocked off #14 Seton Hall by 4, NCAA finalist #10 St John’s by 6, #4 Duquesne by 13, and #11 Dayton by 9. Though La Salle had a great run, the Jayhawks were the better squad and proved it in the year’s Olympic Trials. Kansas took out NAIB Champions Southwest Missouri State before knocking off La Salle 70-65 in the semifinals.
GDB National Champions: Kansas
A year after meeting Kansas in the NCAA final, #7 St John’s once again played for a championship. This time, it was in Madison Square Garden against AP #2 Seton Hall. The Pirates had started the year with 27 straight victories, spending most of the year at AP #1. The Pirates won the NIT Championship by knocking off St John’s, 58-46. After beating ranked DePaul, Notre Dame, and LSU teams, AP #1 Indiana captured their second NCAA title. In Kansas City, they defeated defending champion #3 Kansas in a one-point game. For the first of only five times in history, the AP had a post-season vote. 23-3 Indiana finished #1 and 31-2 Seton Hall finished #2. Both schools claim a national title, and deservedly so. While Indiana had better postseason wins, Seton Hall still played a strong overall schedule, which included four victories over teams that were ranked at the time of the game before finishing outside the top 20. Indiana went 6-3 versus teams that finished ranked and Seton Hall went 2-0. A split championship is appropriate.
GDB Co-National Champions: Seton Hall & Indiana
For the second consecutive season, the AP conducted a post-season poll, and this one was a doozy. Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team was unbeaten on the season and spent most of the season at number one in the AP Poll. But the NCAA had ruled three Kentucky players ineligible due to already having graduated. Kentucky refused a postseason bid in protest. Meanwhile, 9th ranked 26-2 Holy Cross crusaded through the NIT and 12th ranked 26-4 La Salle stormed through the NCAAs. When the dust settled, the AP stuck with unbeaten Kentucky at the top. La Salle passed Holy Cross, who finished 3rd, for the second slot. On the one hand, Kentucky was dominant and perfect. On the other, they could have played in the post-season, but refused a bid. And they likely would not have won a title if they did play. But we are left not with what could have happened, but what did. Kentucky, La Salle, and Holy Cross all claim the title. Interestingly enough, the NCAA Champion may have the worst argument of the three. La Salle finished with four losses to two combined losses between Holy Cross and Kentucky. The Explorers also dropped a 73-60 decision at Kentucky during the regular season, though La Salle did beat #7 Bradley and #9 Penn State in the NCAAs. Overall, the Explorers were just 2-3 against teams that finished ranked, and they also lost to a team that finished unranked, Temple. Holy Cross knocked off #5 Duquesne and #8 Western Kentucky in the NIT, and they were 4-1 against final ranked opponents. Kentucky played the least marquee teams of all, playing just three teams that finished ranked. All three teams have a valid claim to number one and the title of “most accomplished.” It is an unprecedented three-way title split.
GDB Co-National Champions: Kentucky, Holy Cross, and La Salle
Both 22-4 Duquesne (NIT Champions) and 28-1 San Francisco (NCAA Champions) claim the 1955 national title. But this year was all about the emergence of Bill Russell’s Dons. They spent the last two months of the season at number one, and they consecutively beat #7 Utah, #10 Oregon State, #15 Colorado, and #3 La Salle to take the NCAA title. Duquesne was really good, entering the NIT at 6th in the country after spending all year in the top ten. The Dukes also won seven games against ranked teams (at the time the game was played). Duquesne can rightfully claim a national championship. But they were not at the same level of dominance as 1-loss USF, and cannot claim to have had the most successful season of any team that year.
GDB National Champions: San Francisco
29-0 San Francisco repeated as NCAA Champions. They are the championship pick for this season after going wire-to-wire as the AP Poll Champions. But 26-3 Louisville claims the national championship as well, based on their NIT title. The Cardinals entered the NIT at 6th in the country, and it’s a reasonable claim to the title. Over the course of the year, Louisville beat #3 Dayton three times. But once again, NCAA Champion USF separated themselves from the NIT Champions. The Dons won more games over teams that finished ranked in the NCAAs (four) than Louisville did all year (three).
GDB National Champions: San Francisco
The NCAA Championship Game in 1957 is one of the most well-known of all-time. In a matchup of blue bloods, unbeaten #1 North Carolina downed Wilt Chamberlain-led #2 Kansas by a point in three overtimes. It is a clear undisputed title for North Carolina, as 19th-ranked Bradley captured the NIT. A theme was developing. For the third straight year, the NCAA Champion had separated themselves from the NIT winner.
GDB National Champions: North Carolina
#9 Kentucky defeated #18 Seattle in the 1958 NCAA Championship after the Wildcats took out #5 Temple in the semis. In New York City, unranked Xavier pulled off an incredibly shocking run to the NIT title after losing ten of its last 15 regular season games. They defeated #11 Dayton 78-74 in a thrilling overtime final. As special as that victory was for Xavier, who claims a national championship for the NIT title, Kentucky is the rightful selection for 1958.
GDB National Champions: Kentucky
Jerry West captured the NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award in 1959, but his #10 West Virginia Mountaineers lost a heartbreaking 71-70 decision to NCAA Champion Cal, who finished the regular season at #11 in the AP Poll. Cal had picked up a couple of top-20 victories in the West Regional before beating #5 Cincinnati in the national semifinals. In the NIT, unranked St John’s upset #4 Bradley in the finale after defeating Villanova, #19 St Bonaventure, and Providence on their path to the final. The decision here is pretty clear in favor of the Golden Bears.
GDB National Champions: California