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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1954 LaSalle
The 1954 LaSalle Explorers basketball team was a lucky team. Despite being a very small school with an enrollment of less than 1,000, they successfully recruited one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time, Tom Gola. The number one team in the country in 1954 for almost the entire season was the 25-0 Kentucky Wildcats, but Kentucky declined an NCAA bid. The second best team in 1954 was probably the defending champion Indiana Hoosiers, with five returning starters, but Indiana was upset in an early round of the NCAA tournament. That left 24-7 LaSalle a clear road to the NCAA title.
Tom Gola was born and raised in Philadelphia. He led LaSalle College High School to a Philadelphia Catholic League Championship. The 6’6” Gola was heavily recruited out of High School. He visited Kentucky and North Carolina State, but declined their scholarship offers. Instead, Gola walked downstairs from LaSalle College High School to the LaSalle College gymnasium and accepted scholarships for himself and two of his seven siblings.
Because LaSalle College had an enrollment of less than 1,000, Gola was able to play as a freshman. At larger schools, freshmen were ineligible to play varsity basketball.
Gola led the Explorers in scoring and rebounding each of the four years he played. He was a forward, who could rebound and score inside, but also had the ball handling, passing and outside shooting ability of a guard. Until Oscar Robertson came along a few years later, Gola was considered the best all-around basketball player ever.
LaSalle’s coach said "I have never seen a youngster with such poise. Nothing rattles him. He can do everything and do it well." Sonny Hill, longtime announcer for the Philadelphia 76ers compared Gola to Magic Johnson: “a big guy who could handle the ball and do it all.” Wilt Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native, claimed that Tom Gola, not him, was the best player the city ever produced.
Tom Gola was thin, but he used his long arms and extreme quickness to dominate the boards. Gola, a three-time All-American, still holds the NCAA record for career rebounds with 2,201.
Gola’s freshman year, 1951-52, he averaged 15.8 points and 15.5 rebounds. LaSalle went 25-7 and won the NIT. Gola’s sophomore year, 1952-53, he averaged 18.5 points and 15.5 rebounds. LaSalle went 25-2 in the regular season, but Gola was injured at the end of the season and LaSalle lost a 75-74 heartbreaker to St. John’s in the first round of the NIT.
Virtually the entire LaSalle team graduated in 1953. Only Gola and guard Frank O’Hara returned to start the 1953-54 season. LaSalle was not expected to have a very good season.
After winning their first three games, LaSalle lost at Niagara 74-66. LaSalle won three more games, but then lost to number one Kentucky at Kentucky 73-60. After beating St. Louis 77-63, LaSalle was crushed by Niagara at home, 69-50. After going 7-3 in their first 10 games, the Explorers dominated the rest of the way. Their only loss was a 57-56 nail biter against Philadelphia rival Temple. Going into the NCAA tournament, LaSalle was 21-4.
In the first round, LaSalle faced Fordham in Buffalo, New York. Fordham was leading by two points with just a few seconds remaining. Tom Gola made a pass to sophomore Frank O’Malley under the basket and O’Malley scored at the buzzer. In overtime, LaSalle squeaked by 76-74.
LaSalle beat North Carolina State, Navy and Penn State en route to a championship showdown with the Bradley Braves. Bradley led 43-42 at halftime, but LaSalle blew out the Braves in the second half and captured the NCAA championship with a 92-76 win. Gola was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four. Teammate Chuck Singley joined him on the all-tournament team.
The next season, Gola led the Explorers to the NCAA Championship game, but they lost to Bill Russell’s San Fransisco Dons 77-63.
How much of a one man team were the Explorers in the 1954? Gola played every position. He averaged 23 points and 21.7 rebounds. The next highest scorer was sophomore forward Chuck Singley, who averaged 10.7 points and had 5.1 rebounds. The next highest rebounder was the tallest player on the team at 6’7”, sophomore center John Yodsnukis. Yodsnukis averaged 4.6 points and 5.7 rebounds. Although assists weren’t recorded in 1954, there is no doubt that Gola would have led the Explorers in assists by a wide margin as well.
Name Pos Class Pts Reb
Tom Gola F JR 23.0 21.7
Charles Singley F SO 10.7 5.1
Frank Blatcher G SO 10.4 4.6
Francis O'Hara G SR 9.6 3.7
Francis O'Malley F SO 7.4 4.6
Robert Maples C SO 6.9 4.7
Charles Greenberg G SO 4.7 3.0
John Yodsnukis C SO 4.6 5.7
Robert Ames F SO 2.0 0.9
Manuel Gomez C SO 0.6 0.8
How would the 1954 LaSalle Explorers do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
Although Tom Gola would probably be a very good player today, it is difficult to imagine a 6’6” forward pulling down nearly 22 rebounds per game. Moreover, although a single superstar player can still have a major impact in college basketball, it is doubtful a 6’6” forward could single-handedly lead a team to the NCAA championship today. The last player to come close was Larry Bird, whose Indiana State team lost the NCAA championship in 1979, but Bird was 6’9” and his play was complimented by two very good college guards. LaSalle’s lack of height would be a major problem against modern teams. Although the shot clock probably wouldn’t give LaSalle much trouble (they averaged 75.4 points per game), LaSalle would have to rely heavily on the three-pointer and it is doubtful LaSalle had the outside shooters (other than Gola) to make that work.
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