This was the year of Utah's Blitz KidsArnie Ferrin, Wat Misaka, Fred Sheffield, Herb Wilkinson, Dick Smuin and Bob Lewis. Average age: 181/2.
While the Whiz Kids of Illinois had stayed home in 1943, the Blitz Kids of Utah didn't even have a home in '44. The Skyline Conference had suspended play and the Army had taken over the Utes' fieldhouse in Salt Lake City, so coach Vadal Peterson was obliged to play mostly service teams in church gyms.
Utah went 183 and was invited to both NIT and NCAA tournaments. Peterson took the NIT offer because it included travel expenses, but the Utes were knocked out in the first round by Kentucky. Meanwhile, when Arkansas was forced to pull out of the NCAAs after a car accident injured several starters, the West Regional berth was offered to Utah. This time the Utes accepted and ended up back in New York for the Final Two. There, the Blitz Kids beat a transfer-laden Dartmouth team (including St. John's star Dick McGuire) 4240, on a Wilkinson buzzer-beater in overtime.
The Utes met NIT champion St. John's in the second Red Cross Benefit game a few nights later before 18,125 at the Garden. St. John's had beaten George Mikan and DePaul in the NIT final, but Ferrin (17 points) and the rest of the Kids had finally found a home and won easily, 4336.
|Men's Division 1 National Champions:|
|1944||Utah||21-4||NCAA||Vadal Peterson||Arnie Ferrin, F|
|Army (Helms) *||15-0||Ed Kelleher||Dale Hall, F|
* Army did not lift its policy against postseason play until accepting a bid to the 1961 NIT.
|Semifinals||Dartmouth 63, Catholic 38|
|Ohio St. 57, Temple 47|
|Third Place||Temple 55, Catholic 35|
|Final||Dartmouth 60 Ohio St. 53|
|Semifinals||Iowa St. 44, Pepperdine 39|
|Utah 45, Missouri 35|
|Third Place||Missouri 61, Pepperdine 46|
|Final||Utah 40, Iowa St. 31|
at Madison Square Garden, New York
|Championship||Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (OT)|
|Most Outstanding Player||Arnie Ferrin, Utah|
All games at Madison Sq. Garden, New York
|Quarterfinals||Oklahoma A&M 43, Canisius 29|
|Kentucky 46, Utah 38|
|St. John's 44, Bowling Green 40|
|DePaul 68, Muhlenberg 45|
|Semifinals||St. John's 48, Kentucky 45|
|DePaul 41, Oklahoma A&M 38|
|Third Place||Kentucky 45, Oklahoma A&M 29|
|Championship||St. John's 47, DePaul 39|
|Most Valuable Player||Bill Kotsores, St. John's|
(In alphabetical order)
|Before Tourns||Head Coach||Final Record|
|Bowling Green||223||Harold Anderson||224|
|Iowa St.||133||Lou Menze||144|
|Ohio St.||136||Harold Olsen||147|
|Oklahoma A&M||264||Hank Iba||276|
|St. John's||155||Joe Lapchick||185|
|Big 6||Iowa St./Okla. (91)|||
|Big 7||No competition|
|Big 10||Ohio St. (102)|||
|Missouri Valley||Oklahoma A&M|||
|New England||No competition|
|PCC North||Washington (151)*|||
|PCC South||California (40)*|||
|Southern||North Carolina (91)||Duke|
(In alphabetical order)
Utah's second chance to participate in the 1944 NCAA Tournament was not an act of charity. Tournament officials were in a bind. Another team was needed, and quickly, to fill out the field for the Western playoffs.
The Utes had said no once to the opportunity, choosing instead to make the long trip to the National Invitation Tournament in New York, The NIT was offering a larger guarantee, and only two Utah players -- Fred Sheffield and Arnie Ferrin -- had set foot in the Big Apple. Accordingly, it was the overwhelming sentiment of the team to visit New York.
Alas, the experience was soured by a 46-38 loss to a strong Kentucky team in the first round. The NCAA Tournament wouldn't get under way for four more days, but already the Utes were talking about basketball in the past tense. Then came the telephone call from Kansas City. Arkansas was pulling out of the NCAA's Western field because two of its best players had been injured in an automobile accident.
Did the Utes want to take Arkansas' place?
Did they ever!
The alternatives offered by the coach, Vadal Peterson, were to spend a few days sightseeing and then go home or entrain the following morning for Kansas City and another chance to play basketball.
"Let's go to Kansas City and win the title," Ferrin said. "Then we can return to New York and prove that our loss was a fluke."
For the second consecutive year, the NCAA championship game was scheduled for Madison Square Garden. Utah was gambling it could continue playing basketball and earn another week in New York. The team set out for Kansas City, a journey that required 2 1/2 days because of erratic train schedules caused by wartime troop movements.
When Utah faced the Missouri Tigers on the night of March 24, it made history without firing a shot. By its mere presence, it became the first team to participate in both the NIT and the NCAA Tournament in the same season.
The 1944 season had been unprecedented in every way for Utah. Because the Mountain States Conference had suspended basketball for the duration of the war, the Utes had to piece together a schedule heavily flavored with service and industrial teams.
Because the school's field house had been commandeered by the U.S. Army, the Utes had to practice at a church gym in downtown Salt Lake City. Because so many older students had enlisted or been drafted, the Utes had to rely almost entirely on freshmen and sophomores. The team's average age was 18 years, six months.
None of the youngsters, all of whom were raised within 35 miles of the campus, had been recruited. Ferrin, the freshman high scorer, knocked on Peterson's door for the opportunity to play. A friend of Wat Misaka's saw a notice for tryouts on a bulletin board and advised the little guard, who hadn't considered the possibility. Thrown together in a makeshift home, the local kids did all right. Entering the NIT, the Utes had won 17 of 20 games.
The loss to Kentucky in New York was Utah's first against collegiate opposition. But Utah did not discourage easily, as it proved in the depleted Western playoffs. By beating Missouri, 45-35, and Iowa State, 40-31, the Utes won the right to get back on a train headed to New York. This time they arrived not as anonymous guests from a distant land but as cult heroes, the team that wouldn't give up, the Blitz Kids.
They got a chance to see New York, and New York got a chance to see them. They were quite a sight.
"We were a bunch of towheaded country kids," Misaka said, "except for me."
Misaka was a living, breathing, dashing Japanese-American whose country was at war with the land of his ancestors. On the West Coast, people of similar background were being herded into camps. The athlete representing Utah heard his share of insults during the wartime years.
"I was thankful for the screen between the players and the floor at Utah State," he said. "They got pretty hostile. Overall, it was a lot more difficult for me than for other Americans, but it was a lot easier for me than for other Japanese-Americans."
Among the places visited in New York by the Utes were the Copacabana nightclub, the Empire State Building and the Queen Mary, the ocean liner that had been refitted as a troop ship.
"If I yelled 'banzai' and started running," Misaka asked his teammates, "what do you think would happen?" Fortunately, he chose not to find out.
Utah's opponent in the NCAA championship game would be the Dartmouth Indians. Dartmouth, strengthened by the addition of Navy trainees Dick McGuire and Bob Gale (stationed at the Hanover, N.H., college under the wartime V-12 program), had defeated Catholic University and Ohio State to win the Eastern playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Ironically, McGuire had won an award as the outstanding player in the New York area while attending St. John's earlier in the season. Gale had stood out for Cornell.
Without McGuire, St. John's won a second consecutive NIT title in 1944. Now the Redmen awaited the outcome of the Dartmouth-Utah game. The NIT champions again were scheduled to meet the NCAA survivor in a Red Cross benefit at the Garden (such a matchup first occurring the previous year).
On the eve of the NCAA final, however, it was announced by the Department of the Navy that Dartmouth would not be permitted to participate in the exhibition. Because of the trainees on the team, Dartmouth had orders to return to New Hampshire immediately after the NCAA title game.
It was a bitter blow to organizers and the Red Cross. It meant Utah, win or lose, would face St. John's, and the consensus was that Dartmouth was too big and too seasoned for the Utes. Thus the Red Cross game would be anticlimactic.
However, there was at least one person who didn't believe Dartmouth was a sure thing. At 6 a.m. on the day of the game, Peterson was awakened in his hotel room by a sharp knock on the door.
"What is it?" asked Peterson, poking his head into the hall.
"Peterson, coach of Utah?" inquired a large figure bundled in an overcoat, his face shielded by a turned-down hat brim. "Yes," Peterson said.
"What'll it take to arrange for Dartmouth to win by 12 or more tonight?" the figure asked.
Peterson howled in protest and the intruder retreated.
The Utah players had their own ideas about the opportunity.
"I'd hate to play that (Red Cross) game as losers," Ferrin said. But after so many miles on the rails, the Utes weren't planning to lose.
Peterson devised a gambling "pickup" defense to shut off the high-scoring Gale and big Aud Brindley, who had established a tournament record of 13 field goals in the Indians' 60-53 victory over Ohio State. The maneuver enabled Utah to double-team (at least alternately) the Indians' front-line players, leaving an open man somewhere on the floor. Dartmouth rarely found him.
While neither team's offense performed at the expected level, the game was thoroughly competitive. Dartmouth's lead never exceeded three points. Utah never led by more than four. There were seven lead changes in 2 1/2 minutes in the first half, which ended with Dartmouth ahead, 18-17.
A basket by the 5-foot-7 Misaka, whose spirited play had earned a warm reception from the crowd of 14,990, boosted Utah into a four-point lead with four minutes remaining. The Utes ran more than two minutes off the clock before Dartmouth got another chance. McGuire passed to Harry Leggat, a trainee who previously had played for New York University, for a layup, cutting the margin to two.
That basket was answered by Ferrin. Utah again led by four, at 36-32, and now there were 60 seconds left. But Gale tipped in a rebound and then Ev Nordstrom picked up a loose ball and passed to Frank Murphy, who relayed it to McGuire.
McGuire's shot dropped in with three seconds on the clock, tying the score at 36-36. For the first time, the NCAA championship would be decided by an overtime period.
Ferrin, on the verge of exhaustion, kept Utah even in the extra period, pushing his point total to 22 with four free throws. As the final seconds ticked off, Herb Wilkinson worked himself loose behind the free-throw circle and arched a one-hander toward the basket.
The ball hung on the back of the rim for an instant, then dropped. Utah was a 42-40 winner. Underdogs everywhere cheered.
The defense concocted by Peterson worked so well that Brindley made only 5-of-24 shots and Gale sank but five of 18. Meanwhile, Ferrin, the 6-4 great-grandson of a pioneer who trudged across the plains with Brigham Young in 1847, carried the offense. He was honored as the competition's outstanding player.
Two nights later, the Utes toppled yet another favorite, beating NIT titlist St. John's, 43-36, before 18,125 spectators. By the end of the game, they had thoroughly won over New York's critical fans. When they bearded the train for the last leg of their adventure three weeks after leaving home, they carried trophies, medals, watches and the respect of the nation.