If you hopped into a time machine and traveled back 81 years, what would the NCAA tournament look like?
I researched the 1939 NCAA tournament, its media coverage and the official NCAA tournament record book to find out how different it was.
Here are five things that really stuck out.
1. The NCAA champ was one of three other national champions
The 1939 NCAA Tournament was the first-ever NCAA tournament, so while it may seem strange to think about today, 81 years ago the NCAA tournament was competing with the National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship and the New York sports writers’ tournament. All three tournaments would crown a national champion.
The following headline comes from an AP story published in the Argus-Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
According to the AP’s Whitney Martin, “it wasn’t until recently that post-season games became more or less common, and it was just two years ago that the seed of the first national college tournament was sown in a rather impromptu meeting at Kansas City.”
The championship of the first NCAA tournament was played in Evanston, Illinois at Patten Gym on Northwestern’s campus, however the AP’s Martin wrote that “the Kansas City tournament would seem the most representative and consequently carry more prestige.” The year before, a team called the Warrensburg (Mo.) Teachers won the National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship.
OLD-SCHOOL: See the oldest NCAA basketball tournament box score
The 1939 NCAA Tournament had representatives from each of the eight districts with the western division of preliminaries held in San Francisco and the eastern division in Philadelphia. District playoffs were held for the first 12 years of the NCAA tournament with the winner advancing to the tournament, but the playoffs were not considered part of the tournament. East vs. West bracketing remained until 1974.
The New York sports writers’ tournament was clearly the third banana, according to Martin, who wrote, “the New York meet, although an attempt is made to have the best teams in the nation among the entries, would carry no weight inasmuch as some teams not invited might be able to knock the socks off the chosen few.”
Ultimately, the AP story compared the crowning of a basketball champion in an age with three competing postseason tournaments to that of wrestling and its various weight classes.
“The winner of each tournament probably would consider itself more or less a national champion, thus making the sport smack of the wrestling industry, where every grabber who can throw even a slow-breaking curve goes about calling himself a champ,” wrote Martin.
Eighty-one years later, it’s pretty clear which of the three tournaments prevailed in recognizing the annual national champion in men’s basketball.
2. There were just eight teams and eight total games in the NCAA tournament
Today, it takes six games to win the NCAA tournament.
In 1939 there were just eight NCAA tournament games.
National champion Oregon needed to win just three games, beating Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
3. It was feared the postseason schedule could be too rigorous for eventual national champion Oregon
Oregon won the first NCAA tournament but guess what, the Ducks almost never made the first NCAA tournament because of concerns it might be too many games to play.
From an AP story published in The Klamath News (Klamath, Ore.):
“The Pacific coast conference basketball champion will be chosen to represent the coast in the NCAA tournament on Treasure Island March 20-21, District NCAA Committee Chairman John Bunn announced today.
The conference championship will be decided in the next two-out-of-three game playoff series at Eugene, Ore., Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights between University of Oregon and University of California.
Bunn announced his decision after a week of debating whether to choose a team other than the conference champion. He had expressed the view that it would work too much of a hardship for a team to play the conference series and the NCAA tournament only one day apart.”
The rest is history.
4. Games were much lower-scoring and players were significantly shorter
A regional final in the 1939 NCAA Tournament ranks eighth all-time as the lowest point total for a team in NCAA tournament history. Of course, back then “regional final” just meant the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In the first game in NCAA tournament history, Brown scored just 30 points against Villanova, which needed only 42 points for a double-digit margin of victory.
The combined point total in that game of 72 is the seventh-lowest ever. Ohio State and Wake Forest played the second leg of the doubleheader in Philadelphia and the Buckeyes won a barn-burner, 64-52.
On average, teams scored just 45.8 points per game in the 1939 NCAA Tournament — the fourth-lowest average ever.
Texas A&M and Oklahoma played and scored 19 total points in the first 32 minutes.
“The Sooners froze the ball and used their trickery for 12 points in the last eight minutes, holding the Cowboys to one field goal in that time,” wrote the Blackwell Journal-Tribune’s Austin Bealmear.
California had only two assists on 68 field-goal attempts against Oregon in the decisive game of the Pacific Coast Conference championship series.
In the March 28 edition of The Evening Herald (Klamath, Ore.) that recapped Oregon’s national championship victory over Ohio State, the newspaper noted, “the Webfoots brought their height and uncanny one-handed shooting into play again.”
How tall was the 1939 Oregon team?
From a story published prior to the national championship in the Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Ind.): “If there is any advantage at all it belongs to Oregon’s Giants, who combine a dazzling fast pace with an average height of six feet, two inches.”
5. No conference sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament
One of the storylines of the 2019-20 regular season was whether or not the Big Ten could send 10 or 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. In the first NCAA tournament, six conferences were represented — the Big Eight, Big Ten, Pacific Coast, Skyline Eight, South and Southwest conferences — and none sent multiple teams to the tournament.
In fact, the first time that a conference had multiple teams in the NCAA tournament in the same season was the Big Eight in 1944.
Two independent teams made the 1939 NCAA Tournament — Brown and Villanova — so there were more independent teams in the tournament than there were tournament teams from a single conference.