Fullerton: Flashback: DePaul's 1945 NIT Title a Treasure

Fullerton IconBy Drew Mentock and Adam Sadur
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

Money, glory, and fame -- all are synonymous with the NCAA basketball tournament. However, this mid-March spectacle has not always been so prestigious. In fact, it used to a struggle to draw the best basketball teams to the tournament, often giving way to the more prominent NIT.

The NIT predates the NCAA tournament by one year, the NIT being founded in 1938 while the NCAA Tournament came a year later in 1939. In those early years, the NIT was a prestigious and elite tournament. The NCAA Tournament did not crown college basketball’s national championship, the NIT did.

And that is why DePaul’s 1945 NIT Championship is a National Championship.

“The NCAA tournament wasn’t the big tournament, the NIT was the major tournament of basketball at that time,” said Phelan. “That was actually for the national championship was the NIT tournament.”

“In those days the NCAA tournament was 8 different zones of the country, and they picked the best team from each zone,” said Jack Phelan, a member of DePaul’s 1945 NIT Championship team. “That didn’t mean you had the best teams always going to the tournament because there could be two or three real good teams in the same zone and only one could go.”

Audio: Jack Phelan describes the events leading up to DePaul’s decision to go to the NIT

The most dominating team of the 40’s was Kentucky, who won NCAA titles ’48 and ’49. But Kentucky chose to and won the NIT title in 1946. In the early 40’s the NIT was the clear favorite, and 1945 is a perfect example of this. #3 ranked DePaul defeated #7 Ohio State, and legendary DePaul men’s basketball coach Ray Meyer was given the option of which tournament to compete in. Without hesitation, with his player’s full agreement, Meyer chose the NIT.

Mikan had a hurt ankle going into the game against Ohio State, and backup center Jack Phelan was expecting to start. Mikan would have none of it though, and as the game was tied going into overtime and he had played all 40 minutes of regulation. Mikan would show his leadership and pedigree in overtime

“In the overtime he (Mikan) made the comment “I’m tired of this, none of these guys dare take a shot, I want the ball every time we come down the floor.” Well we came down the floor and he got the first 9 points of the overtime and we won the game,” said Phelan.

After the game Meyer wasted no time in telling Ohio State’s coach, Olsen, which tournament invitation he was accepting.

“He told Olsen why don’t you take the NCAA Tournament, which they did,” said Phelan.

At that time NIT tournament in 1945 consisted of eight teams, seven of which were ranked in the top twenty-five teams in the country according to the Premo-Poretta Poll. In comparison, the NCAA Tournament's eight teams only consisted of four top 25 teams (No. 1-ranked Iowa chose to play in neither tournament that year).

The 1945 DePaul team would roll through the NIT tournament, defeating Rhode Island in the Semifinals behind George Mikan’s 53 points. DePaul defeated Bowling Green in the finals by a score of 71-54. Mikan would win MVP of the tournament, to go along with Helms NCAA College Player of the year 1945. Mikan also led the country in scoring.

The NIT was helped by being played at Madison Square Garden. The tournament was appealing to players because they had a chance to play on a big stage, in front of NBA scouts. The scouts predominantly scouted more east coast teams, so the NIT tournament was a great place to audition for a pro-basketball career. The tournament was a great draw, so much so that the NCAA was forced to schedule their tournament after the NIT to avoid conflict.

“When Ray Meyer and George Mikan won in 1945 that absolutely was a national championship,” said Doug Bruno, who's in his  27th year the DePaul’s women's coach and was a basketball player at DePaul himself.

Audio: Bruno talks about the NIT tournament's dominance.

Former NBA and DePaul big man Dave Corzine had similar sentiments.

“That was the tournament of the time, that the NIT was the premier tournament," he said. "It was reversed to how it is now, that the better teams went to the NIT and we were the champions of that tournament. We look at it as being a national championship for sure.”

Nicknamed “Mr. Basketball” Mikan was so dominant that the rules of basketball were changed due to his play. Mikan would stand under the basket and swat shots away from the rim, blocking countless shots. Because of this college basketball (and later pro) would implement goal-tending rules, which hadn’t previously existed.

Mikan PhotoHe was also a prolific scorer. To stop him, teams would hold onto the ball for much of the game so as to not let Mikan have possession of it. To counter this, the first 24-second shot clocks were implemented at the college and pro level.

“People thought that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were good, but Mikan came to collegiate basketball at a place and time as the first great big man,” Bruno said as he described how great George Mikan was as a person and as a competitor.

It was in the 1945 season that it became a violation for an offensive player to remain in the free-throw lane for more than three seconds, another response to Mikan’s dominance under the hoop. The lanes, which had only been six feet wide, were widened to 12 feet, creating a new basketball look.

However, Mikan, who was voted the best player of the first half of the 20th century, was not the only talented player on this team.

In 1945, DePaul had several other future professional basketball players including: Ed Mikan (George Mikan’s brother), Dick Triptow, and Jack Phelan.

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