Wisconsin Will Play for the School’s 1st NCAA Basketball Championship Since 1941

The Wisconsin Badgers upset previously undefeated Kentucky 71-64 on April 4th to advance the NCAA Championship game on April 6th. Wisconsin was led by AP Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but once again, it was Sam Dekker who came through with some big three point shooting when it was needed the most.

Wisconsin will play Duke for the National Championship. Duke advanced with an 81-61 win over Michigan State in the other semi final. The Blue Devils beat Wisconsin in Madison on December 3rd 80-70. Duke shot an incredible 65% from the field that night, while Wisconsin was a cold 40%. Dekker was also hobbled by a lingering ankle injury and scored only five points.

This is Duke’s 11th time in the championship game, and the school has won four National Championships (1991, 1992, 2001, and 2010). Wisconsin is making only its second appearance in the Big Game, and the first since 1941, when the Badgers won their only (or first if they beat Duke) national championship. Here’s a look back at that 1940-41 Badgers team.

The 1940-41 Wisconsin Badgers Regular Season

College basketball was much different in the early 1940s than it is today, of course, with no three point field goals and no shot clock. The game was played at a slower pace with a lot of emphasis placed on defense. The resulting low scores from this style of basketball look more like results of middle school games today rather than college. Season ticket prices for Wisconsin’s ten game home schedule ranged from $4.50 to $7.00. That’s for the entire schedule, not the per game price.

The Badgers’ best players in the 1940-41 season were 6-3 forward John Kotz, a sophomore, and 6-4 center Gene Englund, a senior. The team was coached by Harold “Bud” Foster, whose long Badger coaching career ran from 1934 to 1959.

Wisconsin began the 1940-41 regular season with three straight victories against non conference opponents. The Badgers beat Ripon (WI) College 39-20 on the road in the season opener on December 2nd, then beat Marquette 38-32 and edged Notre Dame 44-43 in a pair of home games. The Badgers dropped their next two contests. Pittsburgh defeated the Badgers in Madison by two points, and then Marquette beat Wisconsin by 10 in Milwaukee on December 21st. Wisconsin bounced back with victories against Princeton in Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve, and at Nebraska on January 4th, 1941. The 5-2 Badgers then prepared to open the Big Ten schedule at Minnesota on January 6th.

It was not a good start to the Big Ten season. Minnesota crushed the Badgers 44-27, holding Wisconsin to its lowest scoring output of the season. It looked like the Badgers were picking up where they had left off the season before, when they were 5-15 and finished ninth in the Big Ten. Instead, Wisconsin began a winning streak that lasted the rest of the season.

The Badgers beat Iowa and Purdue at home, then followed that with road victories at Michigan and at the University of Chicago, which was a member of the Big Ten at that time. The Badgers closed out January with a victory over Ohio State in Madison on the 25th of the month.

In February, Wisconsin picked up a victory in a non conference game against Butler, and had easy conference wins at home against Illinois (46-30) and Chicago (65-25). With February road victories against Northwestern, Purdue, and Indiana, the Badgers entered March with a Big Ten record of 10-1, 16-3 overall.

The last game of the regular season was a rematch against Minnesota at Madison on March 1st. This time, Wisconsin cruised to a 42-32 victory over the Gophers, and the Badgers won the Big Ten Championship.

Gene Englund was named the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player. His 162 points scored in conference games was a record at the time. Englund also was named to the All Big Ten team and was a first team All American. John Kotz also received All Big Ten honors.

1941 NCAA Basketball Tournament

There were only eight teams in the 1941 NCAA Basketball Tournament, with four schools in two regionals. Wisconsin hosted the East Regional on March 21-22, which also featured North Carolina, Dartmouth, and Pittsburgh.

The Badgers’ first opponent was Dartmouth. A big, physical team, Dartmouth had a 24-22 lead at the half. Two Dartmouth players fouled out early in the second half, and Wisconsin finally took a 46-44 lead with about 5 minutes remaining. The Badgers held on for a 51-50 victory. Gene Englund scored 18 points, but the game was won at the free throw line, where Wisconsin outscored Dartmouth 17-10.

Pittsburgh defeated North Carolina in the other game. To advance to the National Championship Game, Wisconsin would have to beat the team they had lost to back on December 18th.

The Badgers again fell behind in the first half, and Pittsburgh went into the locker room with an 18-14 lead. Wisconsin trailed by five in the second half before scoring ten unanswered points to take the lead for good, winning by a final score of 36-30. The Badgers advanced to the March 29th Championship Game in Kansas City against the West Regional winner, Washington State.

The Cougars were a much bigger team than the Badgers, but Wisconsin’s defense and ball control made up for the difference in size. Wisconsin held Washington State scoreless for nine minutes in the first half and for another five minute stretch in the second half. Cougars’ guard Kirk Gebert scored 21 points, but the rest of his teammates scored only 13 more and Wisconsin won the NCAA Championship game by a score of 39-34.

John Kotz was named the tournament’s most valuable player, averaging 12.3 points per game. The Badgers had won 15 games in a row to finish with an overall record of 20-3 and were the NCAA Basketball Champions.

Not surprisingly, there’s next to no video out there of the championship game, but here’s some brief footage from the Washington State athletic department:

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