The University of Kentucky is one of the most iconic schools in the history of college basketball. The Wildcats have participated in 17 Final Fours, which is third behind North Carolina (20) and UCLA (18). Only UCLA (13) has been to more Championship games than Kentucky’s twelve, and most important they stand second in in all time NCAA Basketball Championships with eight (UCLA is the leader with 11). They have had many incredible seasons, but perhaps the greatest season of all time did not earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The year was 1954, but to explain 1954 we need to go back a few years. Led by coaching legend Adolph Rupp, Kentucky won the NCAA Basketball tournament in 1948 (36-3), 1949 (32-2) and 1951 (32-2), but a cloud hung over the Wildcat Program. Beginning in 1948 three mainstays on Kentucky’s starting five (Alex Groza, Ralph Beard , Dale Barnstable) started shaving points in Kentucky’s wins. They were not throwing the games, they just let their opponents stay close, so Kentucky could not cover the point spread. The scandal blew up on Kentucky Basketball in 1952 and the Wildcats were forced to cancel their 1952-53 season.
The cancellation of the season was very devastating to three players who were not involved in the scheme. The 1952-53 season was the senior year for three standouts from the squad that had won the NCAA Championship in 1951, Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos. Due to the cancellation of the 1952-53 season the three stars graduated without playing a game their senior year. All three were selected in the 1953 NBA draft, but all three requested one more year of eligibility to play college basketball. The University of Kentucky granted it and the three would be the backbone for the Wildcats’ 1953-54 season.
They opened with four blow-out wins against unranked opponents, before facing their first true test of the year with a home game against 16th ranked Duke. Kentucky won easily, 85-69. The next day they faced 16th ranked LaSalle, again it was a convincing win for the Cats, 73-61. A week later it was 8th ranked Minnesota and Kentucky won easily, 74-59. The three wins in December would be Kentucky’s only games against ranked opponents until the SEC Championship game in March.
The Wildcats continued to roll, opening their SEC schedule against Tennessee in January with an impressive 97-71 triumph in Knoxville. This would be a sign of things to come, as Kentucky rolled to a 14-0 conference record, with their 85-63 win at Vanderbilt their closest call. This set up a conference championship game with the LSU Tigers, who also finished their SEC Schedule 14-0.
LSU, led by the great Bob Pettit (you can read about him here), would be the Wildcats biggest test. Pettit, who averaged 31 PPG and 17 RPG kept it close, but at home in Lexington, Kentucky pulled away late and won 63-56. LSU’s seven point loss was one of only two games that Kentucky didn’t win by at least twelve points.
It was a dominating season. Their average win margin was 27.2. Center Cliff Hagan led the way, averaging 24 points and 13.5 rebounds a game, but 6-3 guard Frank Ramsey was almost as valuable, averaging nearly 20 points a game and 9 rebounds. The third of the graduate cagers, forward Lou Tsioropoulos, contributed 14.5 PPG and just under ten rebounds. The three were clearly the cream of the crop for this most dominant Kentucky team ever.
The problem came when the NCAA would not allow the three graduates to participate in the NCAA Tournament. This put Coach Rupp in an awkward situation. Without his three stars, he was left with a team that had no double digit scorers, and only two players who averaged more than five rebounds a game. Despite a protest from his eligible players, Rupp chose to decline the invitation to the “Big Dance” and kept his 25-0 team at home.
With Kentucky’s rich history in college basketball, it is telling that 1953-54 is Kentucky’s only undefeated campaign (not including their 9-0 season in 1911-12). Their 27.2 average margin of victory is easily their best in history. If they had participated in the NCAA Tournaments, it’s doubtful they would have advanced past the first round without their three stars, but if Ramsey, Hagan, and Tsioropoulos had been allowed to play they would have been the clear favorite to win the title.
Hagan and Ramsey would go on to Hall of Fame careers in the NBA. Ramsey would join the Boston Celtics and earn seven NBA Titles.
Hagan was also drafted out of college by the Celtics, but after serving a two year commitment to the United States Military was dealt to the St. Louis Hawks before his rookie season in exchange for the rights to Bill Russell. Teaming up with Bob Pettit, Hagan would help lead the Hawks to five consecutive NBA Western Conference Championships, four NBA Final appearances and a NBA title in 1958. Tsioropoulos would not be nearly as successful, but he did win two NBA Titles as a backup for the Celtics in 1957 and 1959.
So how good was this Kentucky team? Well, there’s not too many college teams that had two NBA Hall of Famers in their starting line-up. The only ones that come to mind are the late 1950s San Francisco Dons (Bill Russell and K.C. Jones), the early 1960s Ohio State Buckeyes (Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek), the early 1970s UCLA Bruins (Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes), and the early 1980s North Carolina Tar Heels (Michael Jordan and James Worthy). These four teams are routinely listed among the greatest college basketball teams ever. Their 27 point average margin of victory is also consistent with them being a great team. On the down side, their strength of schedule was pathetic, 87th out of 160 NCAA programs. Ramsey and Hagan were not as good as any of the other four combinations of teammates. They played only eight games away from Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. At this time Rupp would not recruit black athletes, so it’s very hard seeing them staying with the later integrated champions. But most of all, the reason they were not allowed to compete for the National Championship with a complete roster was because Kentucky was involved in a scandal that could have destroyed college basketball. Unfortunately for the players who weren’t involved in the point shaving scheme, the punishment was just and they didn’t deserve any exception to their sanctions.
In conclusion, the 1953-54 Kentucky Wildcats were probably the best college basketball team up to their time, but the San Francisco Dons a few years later would supplant them as the greatest college basketball team of all time. In the years after USF, they probably couldn’t compete with the champions that followed in the 1960s.
To see our complete list of Greatest College Basketball Teams, click here.