Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wyoming @ Utah: Sailors, Ferrin, Mikan and The Great Santini

In 1943 Wyoming captured the schools only NCAA basketball championship. After winning the Mountain States Conference championship Coach Ev Shelton and the Cowboys defeated Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgetown to win the championship in the NCAA tournament. Legendary Kenny Sailors of Hillsdale, Wyoming averaged 15.5 points per game and Milo Komenich averaged 16.7 points per game in leading the team to the championship. The team finished the season with a 31-2 record.

Along with Hank Luisetti of Stanford, Sailors is arguably regarded as the inventor of the jump shot, Conroy himself disputes the fact.

"'When your father came to this part the Midwest, everyone shot with two hands. When he left, everyone shot with one hand. Your old man brought the one-handed shot to Iowa.'" Conroy being told by his father's longtime friend Ray Ambrose that the Great Santini in fact invented the jump shot. Conroy's father played high school basketball in 1938 exactly the same time Sailors was shooting the shot in Hillsdale!

Wyoming's championship likely would not have happened had the season not coincided with World War II. That same year Illinois finished the season 17-1, but their season was cut short as all five starters headed off to active duty in the armed forces. Illinois had finished the regular season as the nations' top ranked team, but did not participate in either the NCAA or NIT tournament that season as a higher duty called.

A year later, Utah captured the Mountain States Conference championship and its only national championship under a set a nearly identical circumstances. Arkansas, this time was victimized by a freak auto accident. Just prior to the NCAA tournament, two of Arkansas five starters were injured when their station wagon broke down after returning from a scrimmage game in Fort Smith, Arkansas. While trying to fix a flat tire, two of the starters on the team, Deno Nichols and Ben Jones were injured when another car rammed into the back of the station wagon. Both players never walked again. The severity of the incident caused Arkansas to withdraw from the upcoming NCAA tournament. In need of a replacement, the NCAA committee turned to Utah, inspite of the fact that the Utes had 4 losses and had just lost their first round game in the NIT tournament. The Utes promptly went out and beat Missouri, Iowa State and Dartmouth in overtime en route to the schools only NCAA championship. Similar to Wyoming, Utah was led by a couple of local kids - Arnie Ferrin who would was named MVP of the Final Four, Fred Sheffield and interestingly Wat Misaka who was himself of Japanese decent.

Importantly, Depaul led by a junior center George Mikan, went 22-4 in 1944, and was largely regarded as the premiere college basketball team in the country that same year, but lost in an upset loss in the NIT tournament.

Only a year - 1943 - before Utah won the championship the man who became the Great Santini took on Mikan and Depaul, Conroy writes, "In a practice game against DePaul Dad outscored a young sophomore by the name of Geoge Mikan, the first great big man in the game. George Mikan was named the best basketball player in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. . . My father had outscored the best basketball player of his time. 'I caught Mikan young, before he became George Mikan.'" Conroy's father explained.

Somehow, the man who would become Bull Meecham in The Great Santini managed to avoid both Kenny Sailors and Arnie Ferrin!

Both Sailors and Ferrin, after capturing the NCAA tournament championships, lead their teams to wins over NIT champion St. John's in front of capacity crowds at Madison Square Garden in war effort benefit games organized by the Red Cross.

The game has changed. In 1944, Utah had one player, Lyman Condie a medical student, who midway through the season quit the team to pursue medical school. Additionally, in 1944 all of Utah's players were raised within 30 miles of the Utah campus. Wyoming's stars were from Hillsdale, Wyoming and Green River, Wyoming (Jim Weir). Today, Wyoming's star point guard is from Chicago, Illinois and Utah's star center is from Australia. In fact all but one of Wyoming's players (Eric Platt) is from another state or country. Utah has only Sean Green and Daniel Deane as regular players raised in Utah.

The game is back and forth, as neither team able to take control, but Wyoming's leading scorer Brandon Ewing picks up his third foul with only 6:11 left in the first half and is forced to take a place on the bench for the rest of the half. The Utes use the advantage to take a two point lead into the half.

With Ewing back, Wyoming opens up seven point lead in the second half, but Utah's Australian Center Luke Neville scores 14 points and is able to use his height to get a couple of key baskets. A late charge call goes against Wyoming and Utah's Sean Green of Salt Lake City hits two free throws to put the Utes up by four points. It almost isn't enough as Eric Platt of Casper hits a late three pointer and three free throws. The Cowboys get a last possession with 4.0 second left but Brad Jones' runner misses and Utah escapes with a 62-60 win.

Neither Ferrin, Sailors, Mikan or Bull Meecham are in attendance.

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