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Kentucky is top 'Cat again - 1951
By Joe Gergen
For The Sporting News
Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum, no small tribute to the university's basketball prosperity, opened its doors in time for the 1951 season.
With a seating capacity of 11,500, it was the largest on-campus arena in the South. It also offered additional shelf space for the awards presented annually to coach Adolph Rupp and his teams.
Since his arrival at Kentucky two decades earlier, Rupp had operated out of a bathroom-sized office in cramped Alumni Gym. The entrance was through a door frame that certainly was not constructed with contemporary basketball players in mind.
"If you did not hit your head," Frank Ramsey said, "you were not considered for a scholarship. I went up to visit a friend during my junior year in high school, and I stopped to see Coach Rupp. I made sure to stand on my tiptoes and hit my head."
Ramsey, who basically recruited himself, arrived at Kentucky in the company of two other outstanding freshmen, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos.
By the time they joined the varsity in their sophomore years, Kentucky's two-year reign (1948, 1949) as national champions had been terminated. It was not another team that performed the dastardly deed; instead, it was the selection committee for District 3. Faced with a choice between two outstanding clubs in March 1950, the selectors picked North Carolina State over Kentucky for the NCAA Tournament berth.
This did not please Rupp, whose Wildcats had won another Southeastern Conference title. Rupp never had been one to feign modesty over his accomplishments, which rankled many basketball people. But that was all right with him.
Rupp cared nothing for popularity contests and everything for basketball games.
"I know I have plenty of enemies," he once said, "but I'd rather be the most hated winning coach in the country than the most popular losing one."
So a snubbed Kentucky team went to the National Invitation Tournament in 1950 and was demolished by eventual NIT/NCAA champion City College of New York, a beating that did nothing for the Baron's disposition.
"I want to thank you boys," he told the Wildcats after the 89-50 thrashing, the worst of his coaching career. "You get me elected Coach of the Year (by the New York Basketball Writers Association) and then bring me up here and embarrass the hell out of me."
The negative publicity directed at the NCAA over the Kentucky snub in '50 was at least partially responsible for a new format in the tournament. Effective in 1951, the field would be doubled from eight to 16 teams, with two representatives selected from each district.
Not that Kentucky needed such a favor in 1951.
The Wildcats, built around 7-foot center Bill Spivey, won 28 of 30 games before embarking for the NCAA Eastern playoffs, which began in Raleigh, N.C., and continued in New York. Undefeated in league play, their only losses were by one point to Saint Louis in the Sugar Bowl Tournament and by four points to Vanderbilt in the SEC postseason tournament. The latter upset might have deprived Kentucky of another chance at the brass ring had not the conference voted that season to nominate the regular-season champion for an NCAA berth (instead of the league tournament champ, as in previous years).
Because of the expanded field, a finalist would be required to play four games instead of three. The Wildcats dispatched their first two opponents with a minimum of fuss, beating Louisville at Raleigh and St. John's at Madison Square Garden, but were pushed to the limit in the Eastern final against Illinois at the Garden. It required a superlative effort by Spivey (28 points, 16 rebounds), a clutch second-half performance by Shelby Linville (14 points overall) and a crucial steal by substitute guard C.M. Newton for Kentucky to subdue the Big Ten Conference champion, 76-74.
The victory qualified Rupp's team to meet another band of Wildcats, from Kansas State, in the national title game, staged for the first time in Minneapolis. Kentucky, which had flown to and from conference games that season in small planes prone to sudden fluctuations, boarded a luxurious national carrier in New York for the flight to the Midwest. Ramsey asked an attendant about the strange compartments above the seats. He was told they were sleeping berths.
Although Kentucky had been ranked first in the nation in both wire-service polls (United Press, the forerunner of United Press International, introduced its basketball ratings in the '51 season), Rupp's Wildcats would not be big favorites at Williams Arena on the Minnesota campus.
Kansas State had enjoyed an outstanding season under coach Jack Gardner and appeared to be gaining strength with each game played in the tournament. After edging Arizona in the first round, Kansas State thumped Brigham Young (the newly crowned NIT champion) and then overran Oklahoma A&M, 68-44, in the Western final at Kansas City.
It so happened that Oklahoma A&M was ranked second in the nation when the Aggies were blitzed by Kansas State. Henry Iba, the Aggies' coach, said Kansas State was the best team he had seen all year. He told Rupp, his friend, he didn't think Kentucky could beat the Kansans.
If that assessment didn't concern Rupp, the condition of Hagan did. The 6-4 sophomore, frequently employed as a sixth man, had been a sparkplug of the team. But he was suffering from a head cold, a sore throat and a fever as Kentucky made last-minute preparations for the game.
When the champions of the East gathered for their pregame meeting, Hagan was missing. A search party finally located him in the hotel spa. He greeted his teammates with a mud pack on his face.
Hagan still was in discomfort when the game got under way on the raised court. After a few minutes, Rupp didn't feel much better. Lew Hitch, Kansas State's 6-8 center, was running circles around the uninspired Spivey. After eight minutes, the Wildcats from the plains held a 19-13 lead. Hitch had outscored Spivey, 10-4.
Rupp had been advised by the team doctor not to play Hagan, who was still flushed.
"I told the doctor, 'Hell, he's the right temperature to play,'" the coach recalled later. Almost immediately upon entering the game, Hagan tipped in a missed shot and Kentucky began asserting itself close to the basket.
In the locker room at halftime, with Kentucky trailing 29-27, Rupp lit into his players, Spivey in particular. The coach could be caustic and demanding, but he knew what he was doing at all times. More often than not, the players responded.
"He was a tough taskmaster," Hagan said. "And he was a great psychologist. When he attacked someone at halftime or in practice, he got you to play better. You exceeded what you normally
That was the case this time. Spivey was a different player in the second half. And with Hagan helping on the backboards, Kentucky began to dominate Kansas State. The Big Seven Conference champion was further hampered by the loss of Ernie Barrett. The standout guard had injured his left shoulder in the Western final and had to leave the national title game in the early going.
Spivey finished with 22 points and 21 rebounds (Hitch had 13 and nine) in Kentucky's 68-58 triumph. Hagan added 10 points and Ramsey, a 6-3 sophomore guard, had nine (as did junior guard Skip Whitaker). By its victory, Kentucky became the first school to annex three NCAA basketball championships.
The coach acknowledged his center's contribution after the game, which attracted a crowd of 15,348.
"Spivey made the difference after he went to work," Rupp said. "Then we opened up the middle more in the second half, sent the guards driving through and shot more from the outside as well."
It was Iba's contention that Rupp's second-half strategy was nothing more than a delay game, a forerunner of the four-corner offense. And he teased him about it the next day. But Rupp would concede no such thing. Kentucky didn't use delay tactics.
What the Wildcats did mostly was win. Rupp now had won NCAA championships with two groups of players; no one who had played for Kentucky in the 1948 or 1949 title game was on the floor in the '51 final.
"He convinced us we could do things we didn't know we could do," Ramsey said. "We were just cogs in a wheel. We were country boys, impressed with what we read about other players and teams.
"He made us believe we were as good as anyone. He told us what he wanted done and we did it."
In 1951, Rupp wanted to win a third NCAA championship because, among other reasons, his team had been denied an opportunity to compete in the tournament the previous year. What Rupp wanted, the not-to-be-denied Wildcats made certain he got.
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