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Badgers deliver crowning blow - 1941
By Joe Gergen
For The Sporting News

Under Doc Meanwell, an English-born and American-educated physician who never played basketball competitively, Wisconsin had dominated its conference in the second decade of the 20th century. Meanwell's offense, which stressed short passes, the crisscrossing of players and the use of screens, revolutionized the sport. The so-called "Wisconsin system" helped transform a roughhouse game into one of precision and finesse.

Meanwell won his last league title in 1929 with a team featuring Bud Foster. After several years of playing professional basketball, Foster returned to Madison to coach his alma mater. His team finished in a first-place tie in the Big Ten in 1935, but a drought ensued.

The Badgers placed a woeful ninth in the conference in 1940 and their 5-15 record represented a low point in the school's proud basketball history. The addition of sophomores Johnny Kotz and Fred Rehm to the varsity offered hope, though, as Foster assembled his team for the 1941 season, But it wasn't long before Wisconsin followers were led to expect the worst.

In their first conference game, at Minnesota, the Badgers failed to make a single field goal in the second half and suffered a dismal defeat.

"We were just awful," said Gene Englund, the senior center. Foster did not dispute the claim, but Foster continued to preach his system, the one handed down by Meanwell. The coach was convinced he had the personnel to be successful once the players were able to work in unison. Although prominent programs at Purdue and Indiana were championing the radical new fast break, Wisconsin traditionally employed a set offense.

"We have stuck to our guns and we still feel that we are stressing the short-pass game and using a defense similar to the one Wisconsin teams have used for several years," Foster said. "In lean years our critics point out that the set-play days are over and that we must change our offense to the racehorse game. But these fans are all for this type of play when a winning team uses it. In the same vein, when we lose, the defense is no good, but is a dandy when we win. We know that this is just human nature, but it is a very interesting fact nevertheless."

What fans found more interesting was the team's reaction to the Minnesota game. Instead of collapsing, the Badgers revived.

"It woke us up," Englund said.

In short order, Wisconsin began to gain attention throughout the Big Ten, sometimes through its play, sometimes through its antics. At Purdue, forward Charlie Epperson decided he had taken just about enough abuse. So, during a stoppage in play late in the game, he stood in the middle of the court and thumbed his nose at the crowd. He drew a technical foul, but apparently it was worth it. In addition to the satisfaction he derived from the gesture, the Badgers won the game.

The opponent the Badgers pointed for was Indiana. The Hoosiers had won the national championship the previous year and still were regarded as the class of the conference. Indiana's only two defeats of the '41 season had been to Southern Cal on a West Coast swing and at Purdue. And the Hoosiers hadn't lost a game in Bloomington in three years.

Wisconsin won handily, 38-30, on Indiana's home court, holding the Hoosiers to their lowest point total of the season and justifying Foster's faith in Meanwell's tactics. The Badgers did not hold the ball, but instead repeatedly ran a series of set plays until a man popped open.

"We'd make 10-12 passes before we'd shoot," Kotz said. Yet Wisconsin led the Big Ten in total points that season.

Remarkably, after losing their first game in such desultory fashion, the Badgers swept undefeated through the rest of the conference schedule. Their first Big Ten title in six years qualified them for a berth in the third NCAA Tournament, one that would establish a precedent of sorts.

Hoping to increase profits, the NCAA considered several sites for the Eastern playoffs and settled on Madison. It so happened the Badgers had one of the largest on-campus arenas in the nation and often filled it to its 13,000 capacity.

It was difficult to say what the home-court advantage was worth because Wisconsin had such a difficult time against Dartmouth and Pittsburgh. The Badgers trailed both teams at halftime and had to rally in the final minute to subdue Dartmouth, 51-50. The Badgers earned the right to participate in the NCAA championship game by overcoming Pittsburgh, 36-30.

To find itself in such a position was a most pleasant surprise for Wisconsin. At the start of the year, the Badgers hadn't looked beyond the Big Ten season. But now they were only one victory from a national championship. Since Ohio State had been a finalist in the first tournament and Indiana had won the NCAA title the previous year, there was no shortage of confidence in Madison.

"We thought the Big Ten had the best basketball," Kotz said.

Washington State, featuring massive 6-foot-8 center Paul Lindeman, had won the Western playoffs in convincing fashion by defeating Creighton, 48-39, and Arkansas, 64-53, in Kansas City. Since the championship game also would be played in the Missouri city, the Cougars waited around for the better part of a week.

"I think it hurt them," Kotz said.

The Badgers arrived by train on the day before the final. They came with a plan for bottling up the 230-pound Lindeman and slowing Washington State's fast-paced attack. Although scouting was not widely practiced in 1941, Wisconsin assistant coach Fritz Wegner had attended the Western playoffs and mapped out a strategy.

The standard defense practiced at Wisconsin was the shifting man-for-man passed down from Doc Meanwell. It called for extensive communication among players on the court.

"We feel that using the voice on defense is all-important and, aside from calling shifts, we yell at shooters," Foster said. "We have earned the name of having the loudest defense in the country."

In addition to taunting the opposition, the Badgers planned to position the 6-4 Englund behind Lindeman and drop back a guard to help out at all times.

One order of business for the Wisconsin team after checking into the President Hotel was a tour of a sporting goods factory. Among the items on display was the outstanding-player award for the championship game.

"The year before," Kotz said, "they had given out a trophy about four feet high. This time they offered a medal about as big as a silver dollar. I thought, 'If I play well tomorrow night, I might win that.' "

Many of the 7,219 fans at Municipal Auditorium had taken the train down from Madison. Although that figure was little more than half of what the Badgers had drawn for the East final, the sense of a hometown celebration was perpetuated by a reunion in Kansas City of the 1916 Wisconsin team, the finest in Doc Meanwell's tenure.

For the first time in the tournament, Wisconsin started fast. Two baskets by Rehm and another by Englund provided the Badgers with a 6-0 lead.

Washington State came back to tie at 66 and 8-8, then forged ahead, 12-9. A nine-minute scoreless streak by the Cougars enabled Wisconsin to regain the lead at 17-12. Washington State's Kirk Gebert scored the next five points, but Wisconsin accounted for the last four points of the half and seized a 21-17 lead.

The Badgers' defense had completely shut off the West Coast team's inside game. Lindeman, in Englund's words, "didn't get to see the ball much." That left the Washington State offense in Gebert's hands.

The guard shot the Cougars into a tie at 24-24 after four minutes of the second half. But Wisconsin scored the next six points and was never headed.

Washington State drew within two points at 34-32 late in the game, but Kotz's basket sealed the 39-34 victory. Kotz finished with 12 points, one fewer than Englund, who limited Lindeman to three free throws for the entire game. Although Gebert led all scorers with 21 points, the "most valuable" medal was awarded to the 6-3 Kotz for his overall play.

A huge crowd was at the station in Madison to meet the returning heroes. Unaware of plans for a parade, Englund had gotten off in his hometown of Kenosha to report to his draft board. Kotz was amazed -- and fearful -- at the greeting.

"They put us on a fire wagon," he said. "There were thousands of people. I jumped off because I thought we were going to be mobbed to death."


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