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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1954 Kentucky
The Kentucky Wildcats were forced to sit out the 1952-53 season as a result of a point shaving scandal involving several Kentucky players from previous years. They practiced together three or four times per week all year and came back in 1953-54 better than ever. The fast-breaking 1954 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team went 25-0 and outscored opponents by an unbelievable average score of 87.5 to 60.3 per game at a time when teams shot approximately 35% from the field. The 27.2 scoring margin is still third in NCAA history. Kentucky’s Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp said “There is no question that this is the best team we’ve ever had at Kentucky and the finest team I have ever seen.”
Hall of Fame guard Frank Ramsey (19.6 pts., 8.8 reb.), Hall of Fame center Cliff Hagan (24 pts., 13.5 reb.) and forward Lou Tsioropoulos (14.5 pts., 9.6 reb.) were all seniors in 1953. They were all drafted by the NBA. Because Kentucky did not play the 1953 season, the three seniors had a remaining year of eligibility for the 1954 season. Although they graduated in 1953, they elected to return in 1954 and try to win the national championship. They took graduate courses in 1954 and played for the Wildcats.
Ramsey could drive to the basket or pull up and shoot from long range. After Kentucky beat St. Louis 71-59, St. Louis’ coach said “Frank Ramsey . . . is the best college player in the country.” Hagan had a spectacular hook shot that he could hit from anywhere on the floor. Adolph Rupp said that Hagan had “the greatest natural touch of any player I’ve seen.” Tsioropoulos could pound the ball inside. All were great rebounders.
The starting five was rounded out by junior forward Billy Evans (8.8 pts., 7.3 reb.) and junior guard Gayle Rose (6.7 pts., 1.4 reb.).
The 1954 season got off to a rocky start. Southeastern Conference foes LSU, Tulane, Mississippi and Mississippi State had all played Kentucky in Lexington in 1952. In 1953, Kentucky would have traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi to play had the season not been canceled. For 1954, Kentucky was scheduled to play LSU, Tulane, Mississippi and Mississippi State in Lexington again. The four teams threatened to cancel their games with Kentucky rather than play twice in a row in Lexington. “In all fairness,” an LSU official said, “Kentucky owes us a trip down here before we have to go back to Lexington.” The Southeastern Conference schools held a vote and voted that the games would be played in Lexington. All of the teams but LSU agreed to abide by the vote.
Adolph Rupp was angered by the NCAA suspension. “I will never be satisfied until the men who suspended us hand us the national championship trophy,” Rupp said. "They'll be no point shaving this year," said Rupp. "When we run up one of those 95 or 97-point totals - and we used to do it often - and there's still a couple of minutes to play, I'm not going to pull my boys up and have them stand around at midcourt and try to hold the score down so we don't humiliate somebody. We'll just keep playing our game and let the other guy worry."
The first game of the season, December 5, 1953, Kentucky pounded Temple, 86-59. Cliff Hagan put up 51 points, nearly outscoring Temple on his own. On December 18, 1953, Kentucky beat St. Louis 71-59. St. Louis’ coach said that the 1954 Wildcats were “the sweetest operating team to watch that I’ve ever seen.” On December 22, 1953, Kentucky took on eventual NCAA tournament champion LaSalle and easily beat them, 73-60.
Before their first SEC game of the season against Tulane on January 16, 1954, Adolph Rupp told his players that Tulane’s coach led the efforts to suspend Kentucky from playing in 1953. "He's on the floor now, the man that led the fight against you last year. For ever blister, every bruise, every black eye, every tooth knocked out last year, that little runt of a coach owes you. Tonight you pay them back for all of last year." Kentucky crushed Tulane, 94-43. When asked what he thought of Kentucky, Tulane’s coach said, “That Kentucky team, whew!”
Kentucky rolled through the rest of the schedule and ended the season in a tie with LSU for the Southeastern conference title. LSU agreed to a playoff game in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky beat the eighth ranked LSU team 63-56 to complete a perfect 25-0 season. At the beginning of the next season, a Philadelphia newspaper story said "Apparently the University of Kentucky basketball dynasty is to continue forever."
The NCAA declared Ramsey, Hagan and Tsioropoulos ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament because they had graduated before the start of NCAA tournament play. Rather than go to the tournament without their three best players, the Wildcats declined the invitation to play in it. Cliff Hagan couldn’t believe he, Ramsey and Tsioropoulos were being penalized for graduating in four years instead of five. "We were penalized for the year we were forced to sit out and that was for something we had not been involved in. If we had taken five years to graduate we wouldn't have had a problem. So we were penalized for trying to do the right thing. Isn't that something?" Frank Ramsey said “The rest of these boys and I were in high school when those things happened. Why’d they take it out on us?” When asked whether the 1954 Kentucky team would have won the NCAA tournament, Frank Ramsey said “In our minds, we felt we were good enough.”
Name Pos Class Pts Reb
Cliff Hagan F/C SR 24.0 13.5
Frank Ramsey F SR 19.6 8.8
Lou Tsioropoulos C SR 14.5 9.6
Billy Evans G/F JR 8.8 7.2
Gayle Rose G JR 6.7 1.2
Phil Grawemeyer F SO 5.9 6.1
Linville Puckett G SO 5.1 2.2
Bill Bibb F SO 1.7 1.6
Hugh Coy F SO 1.3 1.0
Jerry Bird F SO 3.5 3.0
How would the 1954 Kentucky Wildcats do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
The 1954 Wildcats would be a very good team today. 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. Ramsey and Hagan were both excellent outside shooters who took and made shots that would be three-pointers today. Kentucky played at a super fast pace in 1954, outscoring opponents by an average of 87.5 to 60.3, so the shot clock wouldn’t give them much trouble. The 1954 Kentucky team won with the fast break and fantastic rebounding. In high school, all five Kentucky starters played center. However, it is doubtful they could rebound as effectively today as they did in 1954 with no starter taller than 6’5”.
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