Kentucky's early national titles in the late 1940's and early 1950's were not national titles at all. The NIT was the premier tournament at the time, therefore these NCAA titles by Kentucky should not be considered.
The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was begun in 1938 when two local New York teams, two eastern schools and two other teams from the West or Midwest were invited to play a post-season tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The following year was the inaugural year for the NCAA Tournament. The NIT field was slowly expanded and during the 1940's, it was a hot ticket with many compelling games. It was such a draw that the NCAA scheduled their tournament after the NIT in order to avoid competing directly with it. This allowed some schools the opportunity to compete in both tournaments, with City College of New York being the first and only school to win both titles in the same year in 1950. Kentucky won three NCAA titles (1948, 1949 and 1951) and one NIT title (1946) during the time period that both tournaments were considered prestigious.
In the early-1950's, the NCAA began a slow progression of minimizing the NIT's prestige by making it mandatory for winners of the top-10 conferences to participate in the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT. In addition, the NCAA began to expand their field, first to 16 teams (from 8) and then to 22 teams. This further put a crimp on the NIT.
A point shaving scandal was exposed in the early 1950's, which implicated many major programs in New York City and around the country (including Kentucky), which was a huge blow to the college basketball scene in New York, including the NIT which was so closely associated with Madison Square Garden, the setting for many of the fixes. Later in the early 1970's, due to an incident with Al McGuire and his Marquette Warrior team which declined an NCAA bid because it was not in their preferred region, the NCAA made it mandatory for NCAA schools which received a bid to their tournament to accept. With time, the NCAA gradually continued to expand the tournament to the current 65, so that more of the quality teams which were previously left out of the NCAA Tournament are now prevented from playing in the NIT.
In 1948, Kentucky was considered the premier basketball team in the country. Nicknamed the 'Fabulous Five,' they stole the imaginations of not only the state of Kentucky but the entire country as well. Kentucky was rated the number one team in at least one ranking of the time (Premo). They boasted two All-American players in center Alex Groza and point guard Ralph Beard, both who were later voted as top ten collegiate players in the decade of the 1940's. Kentucky also boasted first-team All-SEC Wallace Jones who the next year was named All-American and Ken Rollins along with All-SEC Tournament MVP Cliff Barker. Jack Parkinson and James Jordan were two former All-Americans who were part of a talented and deep bench for the team.
The team went 33-2 in the regular season, along the way beating convincingly #7 DePaul and # 12 Tennessee twice. They also beat #20 Columbia, #3 Holy Cross and #11 Baylor in the NCAA Tournament. Also in the tournament was # 9 Michigan.
The NIT that year was stacked, with #2 St. Louis winning the title over a field which included #4 Western Kentucky, # 5 North Carolina State, # 6 NYU, # 7 DePaul, # 13 Bowling Green and # 17 Texas. While the NCAA and NIT both had extremely competitive fields that year, any question which might have lingered concerning the best team in the country was answered when Kentucky proceeded to win the collegiate portion of the Olympic Trials Tournament in New York City, and with the AAU contingent of the Philips Oilers led by 7-footer Bob Kurland, went on to win the 1948 Olympic games while representing the United States in London.
The following year (1949), Kentucky returned largely the same team and was ranked #1 in the nation in the inaugural Associated Press poll. They again claimed the National title, beating #14 ranked Villanova, #4 Illinois and #2 Oklahoma A & M to win the title. Also in the field were # 11 Yale and #17 Wyoming. The NIT field, won by # 8 San Francisco, also had an outstanding field, including # 3 St. Louis, # 5 Western Kentucky, # 7 Bradley, # 10 Bowling Green, # 12 Utah and # 16 Loyola of Illinois. Interestingly, # 1 Kentucky also participated in the NIT tournament but was upset in the quarterfinals by a huge underdog in Loyola of Illinois. This was a shocking upset which left coach Adolph Rupp baffled and the Kentucky fans in disbelief. Only years later did the reason become known when the 'Scandals of 51' became public and shook collegiate basketball. That game was one where a few UK players attempted to shave points for $1500 (in this case the control of the score got out of hand and Kentucky ended up losing), a deed which eventually ruined their basketball careers and changed their lives.
In 1951, Kentucky was again ranked #1 in the polls, fueled by seven-foot All-American Bill Spivey, All-SEC performers Shelby Linville and Bobby Watson and future Hall-of-Famers Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey. They defeated Louisville, # 9 St. Johns, # 5 Illinois and # 4 Kansas State to win the title. Also in the NCAA field were # 2 Oklahoma State, # 3 Columbia, # 8 North Carolina State, # 11 Brigham Young, # 12 Arizona, # 15 Washington and # 20 Villanova.
The NIT, on the other hand, had a number of top 20 teams (many which also participated in the NCAA) but was not very top heavy that year. # 11 Brigham Young won over a field which included # 8 North Carolina State, # 9 St. John's, # 10 St. Louis, # 12 Arizona, # 13 Dayton, and # 17 Cincinnati.
While the NIT was certainly impressive during the time period which Kentucky won their early titles, both the NIT and NCAA Tournaments more than held their own with neither demonstrably better than the other. Kentucky, during those particular years, was clearly the dominant team, led by multiple players who either were or went on to be All-Americans, being ranked # 1 in the polls at the time, winning the collegiate portion of the Olympic trials and beating an impressive string of ranked opponents on their way to the respective titles.
Return to Kentucky Wildcat Basketball Page.Jon Scott