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Greatest College Basketball Teams of All Time: Spotlight 1951 Kentucky
The 1951 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team went 32-2 and won their third NCAA Championship in four years for Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp. Kentucky was led by junior Bill Spivey, and two sophomores now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan.
Bill Spivey was a 7’0” center. He was one of the first seven footers to play college basketball. He dominated in 1951, scoring 19.2 points per game and pulling down 17.2 rebounds. Spivey’s 17.2 rebounds is still the Kentucky single season record. Spivey was an All American in 1950 and 1951.
Teammate CM Newton said Spivey “was the first big man that could just fly up and down the court. He had extremely good agility as a big man.” Hall of Fame teammate Frank Ramsey agreed. “He was a tremendous basketball player…he was a 7-footer that could run…he had a good hook shot…good rebounder.”
In High School in Macon, Georgia, Spivey played his sophomore year in his socks, because he couldn’t find shoes big enough. His junior year, he got size 12 shoes and cut out the toes with a razor blade. “I got blisters on my toes, but at least I stopped the walking violations,” Spivey said.
In January 1951, two players on Manhattan College’s basketball team were arrested for taking bribes to fix games. Eventually, seven schools and 32 players would be implicated in the massive game-fixing and point-shaving scandal. Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp claimed that his team was beyond suspicion. “They couldn’t reach my boys with a ten-foot pole,” he said.
In October 1951, after the season had ended, Spivey’s former teammates, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, were arrested for accepting $500 in bribes to shave points in an NIT game against Loyola (Chicago) in 1949. A Brooklyn gambler claimed that he had paid Spivey to shave points against St. John’s in a 43-37 victory over St. John’s on December 23, 1951. Beard and Groza pleaded guilty. They were put on probation, given suspended sentences, and barred from all sports for three years. The NBA banned them for life. Spivey told a grand jury that although he knew Beard and Groza accepted bribes and did not report it, he was innocent of taking bribes to fix games. He said he was asked to fix a game twice, but refused. He was arrested and tried for perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury. The jury voted 9-3 that Spivey was innocent and the case was dismissed. Spivey later took and passed a lie detector test to prove that he had not fixed games.
It didn’t matter. On March 2, 1952, Spivey was kicked off the Kentucky team. He was banned for life from playing in the NBA. For its part in the scandal, Kentucky was not permitted to participate in the 1953 season.
Many believe Spivey would have been one of the greatest NBA centers ever. In 1960 Spivey played an exhibition against a team led by Wilt Chamberlain. Spivey scored 30 points and had 23 rebounds.
Sophomore guard Frank Ramsey scored 10.1 points and had 12.8 rebounds per game in 1951. He was an All American in 1951, 1952 and 1954. Ramsey could score inside and outside, and was an amazing rebounder. His 1,038 rebounds in his three years at Kentucky place him second all-time at the school. Ramsey was a first round NBA draft pick. He played nine years for the Celtics and won seven NBA championships.
Sophomore forward/center Cliff Hagan averaged 9.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as the Wildcats sixth man in 1951. He was an All American in 1952 and 1954. Hagan was the master of the hook shot. His 1,035 rebounds in his three years at Kentucky place him third all-time at the school. Hagan averaged 18 points per game in 10 years in the NBA and was a five-time All-Star.
Junior forward Shelby Linville (10.4 pts., 9.1 reb.) and junior point guard Bobby Watson (10.4 pts.) and senior captain forward Walt Hirsch (9.1 pts., 8 reb.) rounded out the Wildcats starting five.
Kentucky began the year by bringing their 84-game home winning streak to the brand new 11,500 seat Memorial Coliseum. They pounded West Texas State 73-43. After winning their first six games in a row and garnering a number one ranking, Kentucky lost a 43-42 heartbreaker to St. Louis in overtime in New Orleans. The Wildcats won their next 21 in a row, before dropping a close game to Vanderbilt 61-57 in Louisville.
In the NCAA tournament, Kentucky beat Louisville 79-68 in the first round. Then the Wildcats traveled to New York to play number nine St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. Kentucky won 59-43. Two days later, Kentucky squeaked by number five Illinois 76-74.
In the NCAA championship game, Kentucky faced off against number four Kansas State. Kentucky began the game shorthanded. Starter Walt Hirsch was ineligible because fourth year varsity players were not permitted to participate in the NCAA tournament and sixth man Cliff Hagan had a throat infection. Kansas State jumped out to a 20-12 lead. Rupp brought in the sick Hagan. With Hagan’s help, Kentucky cut the Kansas State lead to 29-27 at halftime. In the second half, Kentucky came from behind and beat Kansas State 68-58. Hagan scored 10 points before fouling out. Spivey scored 22 points and had 21 rebounds. Spivey and Shelby Linville (who scored 8 points in the championship game) were named to the All-Tournament team.
In an era when the average team shot 33 percent from the field, Kentucky held their opponents to just 27.1 percent, while shooting 34.2 percent themselves. They outscored their opponents 74.7 to 52.4 per game, the largest margin of victory in college basketball in 1951.
Name Pos Class Pts Reb Ast
Bill Spivey C JR 19.2 17.2 2.5
Shelby Linville F JR 10.4 9.1 2.0
Bobby Watson G JR 10.4 2.5 1.4
Frank Ramsey G SO 10.1 12.8 2.7
Cliff Hagan F/C SO 9.2 8.5 1.0
Walt Hirsch F/C SR 9.1 8.0 3.4
Lucian Whitaker G JR 5.2 2.0 0.9
Lou Tsioropoulos F/C SO 3.4 4.8 0.8
Dwight Price F SO 1.7 2.2 0.2
C.M. Newton G/F JR 1.2 0.7 0.3
How would the 1951 Kentucky Wildcats do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
Although Bill Spivey might not dominate today the way he did in 1951, he would likely be a very good college center. Had he not been banned from the NBA for life, Spivey likely would have had a long and very good pro career. Frank Ramsey was a first round NBA draft pick who played pro ball for nine years and won seven championships. Cliff Hagan was a five time NBA All-Star who played pro ball for 10 years. Today, it is very rare for a college team to have three NBA starters. Ramsey and Hagan were both excellent outside shooters who took and made shots that would be three-pointers today. Kentucky played at a fast pace in 1951, outscoring opponents by an average of 74.7 to 52.4, so the shot clock wouldn’t give them much trouble. In fact, the shot clock might help them. In both of the games Kentucky lost in 1951, their opponents substantially slowed down the tempo of the game.
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