Davis Merritt: Whether ’50s or today, unbeaten is all about circumstances fitting at right time

03/06/2014 12:53 PM

08/06/2014 10:12 AM

Note: Former Eagle editor Davis Merritt was assistant sports information director at North Carolina in 1957 and later covered Atlantic Coast Conference basketball for the Charlotte Observer.

Two undefeated basketball teams, 57 years apart but twinned nevertheless in their quest for perfection and a place in history: North Carolina in 1957 and Wichita State in 2014.

As Kansans of a certain age will recall, North Carolina succeeded. Do lessons for WSU lie in the parallel histories?

Directly comparing two teams a half-century apart is nonsense. Today’s players are taller, faster, stronger, more experienced, better trained. The game is different: in 1957 there were no dunks, no shot clock, no three-point shot, so the Xs and Os differ. The season was 30-34 games at most, not 40-42. But since teams in each era played under the same circumstances and rules, going an entire championship season without a loss is equally impressive and rare.

Despite the existential differences, the mystique surrounding two unbeaten seasons can be examined.

Team dynamics: At one level, they are starkly different. UNC had a senior and four juniors and little else; substitutions were few and brief. But the senior was national player of the year Lennie Rosenbluth, a skeletal 6-5, back-to-the basket forward who averaged 28 points. The juniors included a 5-10 point guard who could penetrate and dish, a reliable defensive stopper and a couple of other double-figure scorers. In was the five’s second year together, so roles were clear: everything revolved around Rosenbluth. Even when he scored in the 40s (seven times), no gunching. WSU’s composition is the opposite: nine players share points and minutes. But the point guard, defensive stopper and double-figure scorers sound familiar. As do the discipline and lack of concern about credit. Just win, baby.

The task: In the ’50s, only 23 conference champions made the NCAA bracket, which meant the national champion had to win five. No seedings; teams played in four geographical regions with pairings for each drawn out of a hat. If the three best teams were in one region, too bad; only one could advance. Today, it’s 68 teams distributed by record and it takes six straight to win. But UNC actually had to win eight straight because the ACC championship went only to the tournament winner. Even for unbeaten and ranked No. 1 UNC, a first slip there would end it. To finish its perfecto, WSU must now win nine in a row, though with an MVC tourney loss they still could play for the national championship.

Hoopla: 1950s college basketball was an infant. The three TV networks didn’t touch it and ESPN didn’t exist. A few local combines telecast occasional games, so UNC fans watched the NCAA finals on a two-camera, grainy, black-and-white regional hookup. Sports Illustrated, only three years old, “covered” it with a handout, black-and-white publicity office photo of Rosenbluth and his coach and an extended caption, on its back page.

Pressure: As with WSU, at mid-season no one at UNC was talking about perfection. In history, only Bill Russell’s 1956 San Francisco team had accomplished that. By the end of the regular season, people began to talk, but mostly in terms of “when will they lose?” The players didn’t admit to carrying the thought of winning out. Coach Frank McGuire would talk only about winning the next game, though he’d try, often failing, to suppress a slight smile when he said that. The constant, unreferenced tension was like the crazy aunt in the attic.

Tests: UNC averaged 79.3 points to its opponents’ 65.5, but all was not cake-walk. Regular-season tests included two overtimes at Maryland, a five-point win at NYU, three wins by a total of 15 points over nationally-ranked Wake Forest, an overtime four-point win at South Carolina. Then came the first postseason test: Rosenbluth’s three-point play with seven seconds left in the ACC Tournament semifinal — a fourth win, by one, over Wake Forest. WSU averages a 15.5-point margin over its regular-season opponents with only a desperation comeback at Missouri State raising a sweat.

Bad attitudes: Both teams thrived on away games. WSU has the nation’s best road-game record over three years. UNC played only eight games at home. Both teams packed attitudes for road trips. WSU has its “play angry” mantra and lust for respect. UNC’s coach and five starters, all from New York City, quickly discovered that Southern hospitality morphed into redneck hostility when they showed up. Every away game was a potential war.

Triumph: WSU stands this week where UNC stood on Feb. 12, 1957: unbeaten. To achieve perfection, UNC had to win five games in eleven days in three cities. They dispatched Yale 90-74, Canisius 87-75, and Syracuse 67-58 in five days to reach what now is the Final Four. Waiting for them were a Russell-less San Francisco (22-6), Michigan State (16-9), and Kansas (24-2) with Wilt Chamberlain. Back-to-back Friday and Saturday night games. That’s when the fairy dust and the determination melded. You can look it up. In an unprecedented three overtimes, UNC won 74-70 over Michigan State. The next night, in three even-more unprecedented overtimes, UNC won 54-53 over Kansas despite Rosenbluth fouling out late in regulation. That team was simply not going to lose. And that’s the lesson.

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