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Great Expectations: the 1949-50 Indiana Hoosiers.

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As I mentioned last week, this is the first in what will be a series of posts taking a look back at the 14 IU teams that have been ranked in the top 5 of the college basketball season's first Associated Press poll. The AP poll began in 1948-49 (actually in January 1949), and IU's first-ever appearance in the poll was on January 5, 1950, which was the first poll of the season. I don't know if there will be any grand lessons to draw from this series, but it begins with the 1949-50 Indiana Hoosiers.

Before discussing the IU team in particular, it's probably worth considering where college basketball was in 1950. IU had begun fielding a basketball team in 1900-01, and basketball became a Big Ten sport in 1905-06, but the nationalization of college basketball was relatively recent. The NIT began in 1938, and the first NCAA Tournament was played in 1939. The introduction of the AP college basketball poll in 1949, to accompany the football poll, which began in 1934, was another indication of the increasing popularity and importance of college basketball.

In 1949-50, Branch McCracken was in what would have been his twelfth season as IU's coach, but McCracken missed three full seasons, beginning in 1943-44, because he was serving in the Navy during World War II. Before heading off to war, McCracken's record was astoundingly good: 87-17 overall (.837), 49-14 in Big Ten play (.778), and, of course, he had led IU to the 1940 NCAA championship. Amazingly, however, despite those impressive totals and the national title, McCracken had never won a Big Ten title. Each of his first five IU teams finished second in the conference.

(Oh, and perhaps you've heard the lore about IU's 1940 IU NCAA bid, the one that Big Ten champion Purdue purportedly turned down? Not so, says legendary Bloomington sportswriter Bob Hammel:

No "automatic" berths in that eight-team 1940 NCAA tournament went to any team, league champion or not. IU, rather than Purdue, was the choice of the committee charged with selecting the "most representative team" from the Big Ten-Midwest region, according to Tony Hinkle, the long-time Butler coach who was on the committee. I sat beside Tony on a flight to Denver for the 1989 Final Four and asked why that happened. He said that, of course, the committee recognized Purdue had won the Big Ten championship but selected Indiana because of its home-and-road sweep over the Boilermakers.

But I digress.)

Harry Good took the helm for IU while McCracken was at war, and it didn't go all that well. Good went 17-26/5-19 in his first two years, although he rebounded with an 18-3/9-3 season (and IU's fifth second place league finish in seven seasons) in 1945-46. When McCracken returned to the helm, IU went 12-8/8-4 in 1946-47 (you guessed it--second place) before sliding to 8-12/3-9 in 1947-48 and bouncing back to 14-8/6-6 in 1948-49.

It's impossible to reconstruct whether "preseason expectations," if such things even existed in 1949, were high for the Hoosiers entering 49-50, but IU did return five of its top six scorers from the respectable 1949 team. The leading returning scorer, and a man who would leave IU as its all-time leading scorer, was junior Bill Garrett. Garrett enrolled at IU in 1947, in the era of freshman ineligibility, and began his playing career in 1948. Contrary to popular belief, Garrett was not the first African-American to play Big Ten basketball. That was Dick Culberson of Iowa, who played sparingly for the Hawkeyes as a reserve in 1944-45. Still, Garrett's recruitment by IU and his excellent play for IU are widely perceived as breaking the "gentlemen's agreement" (their term, not mine) that kept African-Americans out of Big Ten basketball and out of most major programs across the country. Garrett wasn't the first black man to play in the Big Ten, but he was the first to start or to play a major role, and his recruitment opened the floodgates and changed college basketball forever. (If you want to read more about this, check out Getting Open, by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody. I haven't read the whole thing, but the excerpts on line are fascinating).

With Garrett leading the way once again, IU stormed out to an impressive start, with pre-conference wins over Michigan State (not yet a Big Ten member), Notre Dame, DePaul, Butler, and Oregon State. When the first AP poll of the season was released on January 5, 1950, the Hoosiers, then 9-0 and ready to begin Big Ten play, were ranked #5, behind St. John's, Kentucky, Bradley, and Long Island, all powers of the day. Five days later, after IU beat #15 Wisconsin (then the only other Big Ten school that had won the NCAA Tournament) to improve to 10-0, the Hoosiers reached #4, their high water mark of the season. IU later fell to 8, 9, 12, 16, and finally, out of the poll on February 14, before jumping back at #17, out for another week, and then eking back in at #20 for the final poll.

The Hoosiers finished 7-5 in the Big Ten. IU lost to Michigan and was swept by Iowa and Ohio State. The Buckeyes ran away with the Big Ten title, finishing 11-1 in league, two games ahead of Wisconsin and four games ahead of third place finishers IU and Illinois. Garrett led IU with 12.9 points per game, followed by Lou Watson at 12.2, Jerry Stuteville at 11.9 , and Bill Tosheff at 7.5. Here's some additional perspective on how the game has changed: Garrett shot only 28.6 percent from the field, but that was almost exactly IU's team average (28.6). IU's opponents shot only 29.4 percent, and the team leader was Stuteville, at a blistering 36.4 percent. Some interesting names on the 1950 roster, in addition to Garrett:

  • Frank O'Bannon. The Star's database doesn't show any statistics for O'Bannon, who later was elected to two terms as Indiana's governor. He died in office in 2003.
  • Phil Buck. Buck became a successful high school basketball coach, most prominently at now-defunct Madison Heights in Anderson, which he led to 9 sectional titles and a 1972 State Finals berth in 24 seasons. If any coach or high school sent more talent to IU in the Knight era, I can't think of it: Buck coached Bobby Wilkerson, Ray Tolbert, Winston Morgan, and Stew Robinson at Madison Heights.

The 1949-50 Hoosiers didn't live up to the top 5 rating that they earned in the January 5 poll, but by finishing #20, they did become the first of 26 IU teams to finish the season in the AP poll. The season was the beginning of an upward trend that culiminated in McCracken (after yet another second place finish in 1951) finally winning the Big Ten with a 17-1 record in 1953. And, of course, he added his second NCAA title that year. At the time, the list of coaches with multiple NCAA titles included only McCracken, Adolph Rupp, and Henry Iba. Even today, the list includes only 13 coaches (and only IU and North Carolina have multiple coaches with two or more titles). While not a top five season in the end, 1949-50 was the beginning of an excellent decade for IU basketball.

P.S. Statistical information in this post comes from the Indianapolis Star's IU basketball database (incredibly cool resource) and from basketball media guides produced by IU and the Big Ten Conference.