It's hard to imagine, but there was a time when the NCAA tournament wasn't that big a deal, a time when they didn't even bother gathering the final four teams in one place for the semifinals and championship game.
The tournament was a more modest endeavor, eight teams at first, operated almost as an afterthought to the more glitzy NIT, which had all its games in New York's Madison Square Garden.
In 1951, the field doubled to 16 teams, and the next year it occurred to the NCAA that it might be a good idea to have four regions, with the winners advancing to the same city for a grand climax.
Fifty years later, the event has become a centerpiece of the sports year. The foundation was established in 1952 at the University of Washington's Edmundson Pavillion, where St. John's, Illinois, Kansas and Santa Clara gathered for the first Final Four.
That was a more primitive time in college basketball. No shot clock. No 3-point shot. Narrow lanes. Perfect for a big man like 6-foot-9 Clyde Lovellette of Kansas.
When Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen recruited Lovellette, his pitch was simple. He promised a national championship and a trip to the Olympics by the big man's senior year.
And he delivered.
On both counts.
Despite Allen's plan, the Jayhawks were not the favorites as the 1952 NCAA tournament began. That designation belonged to defending champion Kentucky. But the Wildcats ran into a St. John's team bent on revenge.
During the regular season, St. John's had played at Kentucky. It should have been no big deal except that coach Frank McGuire's team included the school's first black player, Solly Walker.
This was years before the civil rights movement and desegregation. Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp called McGuire and asked him to leave Walker at home.
McGuire would have none of that. When St. John's arrived in Lexington, Ky., Walker was with the team. Fully aware of the racial climate, he maintained a low profile.
"There were problems because of the times," Walker said. "St. John's cleared away most of the obstacles and put a blanket around me. There was nothing they could do about the verbalization."
Kentucky ripped St. John's 81-40. "It was one of those games when we hit rock bottom," Walker said. "It wasn't what they were doing, it was what we were doing. No one was able to put the ball in the basket."
McGuire swore that if the teams met again, the result would be reversed.
Sure enough, when the 1952 NCAA tournament field was announced, Kentucky and St. John's were in the same bracket, assigned to play in Raleigh, N.C. It would be another trip south for McGuire and Walker.
Again, the atmosphere was antagonistic. When their train reached town, Walker was barred from dining with the team, so McGuire ate with him in the kitchen. The players, angered by the slight, played inspired basketball, defeating North Carolina State on its home court 60-49. Kentucky, meanwhile walloped Penn State 82-54. McGuire would get his chance to get even.
At halftime, St. John's led by six points and McGuire's team listened intently as, next door, Rupp screamed at his Kentucky team. The tirade did no good. St. John's got 32 points by Bob 'Zeke' Zawoluk and won, 64-57.
That sent McGuire's team west with a stopover in Chicago, where Illinois and Kansas both boarded the same plane. The Illini had beaten Dayton 80-61 and Duquesne 74-68, and their size frightened McGuire, who thought St. John's would be overmatched in the semifinal.
Instead, Zawoluk scored 24 points and St. John's edged Illinois 61-59. Now it was on to the championship game against Kansas.
The Jayhawks' road to the title began in Kansas City, with victories over Texas Christian, 68-64, and St. Louis, 74-55. Lovellette, who had averaged 28.4 points per game that season, set a tournament record with 44 points against the Billikens and began thinking again of Allen's recruiting promise.
In the semifinals, Kansas faced Santa Clara, which had defeated UCLA 68-59 and Wyoming 56-53. The night before the game, Lovellette was invited by a friend to dine on a Coast Guard cutter anchored in Puget Sound. When a dense fog set in, he was unable to return to shore until the next morning.
Lovellette was hardly disturbed. He scored 33 points and the Jayhawks prevailed, again by 74-55.
Now it would be St. John's and Kansas with the national championship at stake, the game billed as the city slickers against the country boys.
Again, Lovellette dominated inside with 33 points and 17 rebounds, and Kansas won the championship, 80-63. The Jayhawks' big man became the only player to ever lead the nation in scoring and go on to win the NCAA title in the same year.
Within days, Lovellette and seven Kansas teammates were chosen for the United States Olympic team that would win the gold medal at Helsinki, Finland.
Allen's recruiting pitch had come true.
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