The supremely talented 1942-43 Kansas basketball team is another which fits into the frustrating shoulda-coulda-woulda category. Like others in the Jayhawk pantheon, it was good enough to reign as national champion -- if only there hadn't been that damned war.
Kansas was instrumental in making the NCAA basketball tournament a viable and profitable operation even if the Jayhawks suffered an early 12-year drought of Final Fourdom. World War II, of course, had a lot to do with that.
KU's Phog Allen and Dutch Lonborg (noted KU alum, then Northwestern coach) factored heavily in getting the NCAA to set up a national championship format. Kansas was beaten by Indiana in the 1940 title game after Oregon had whipped Ohio State in 1939, the first year of the tourney. There would be 12 more seasons before the Jayhawks again made the Big Dance. In 1952 they finally went the distance.
In 1940-41, KU although it was Big Six co-champion had a 12-6 record and didn't make the tournament. Wisconsin won the '41 college title. The 1941-42 Jayhawks again shared the league championship and posted a 17-5 record, but were edged 46-44 by Colorado in a western playoff. It was in the middle of that season that Pearl Harbor was hit and wartime inroads began. Stanford featuring Jim Pollard won the crown in 1942.
One would have expected KU's 1942-43 club featuring Capt. John Buescher, Otto Schnellbacher, Ray Evans, Charlie Black and Armand Dixon to make quite a splash. All but Dixon were first-team All-Big Six choices and Evans and Black were named All-America.
Trouble is, the Big Six champions whipped Kansas State here on March 6 and the next morning the personnel drain began. Six squad members reported to Fort Leavenworth for Army induction and many others on the 24-man roster would soon follow. KU was left with no representative team to even consider an NCAA quest. As head of the Douglas County Draft Board, KU coach Phog Allen knew full well the needs and demands of the military.
Wyoming, featuring guard Kenney Sailors and frontliner Milo Komenich, won the 1943 title. By then most of the Kansas guys were scattered through the armed forces. KU had a 22-5 team easily good enough to win a championship.
There's a typical Phog Allenism about the last three games the Jayhawks played in 1943. KU edged Missouri 47-44 on March 2 at Columbia and mauled K-State here on the 6th to finish unbeaten in the league. In between, on March 4, Creighton plastered Kansas, 56-34, at Omaha. How could that happen to the famed Iron Five?
Answer: Phog decided that rather than go north for a meaningless game, he'd let his regulars skip the trip for some last-minute, pre-military personal time. Doc often did things like that for his guys. He sent what almost amounted to an intramural group against Creighton. The Blue Jays, featuring All-American Ed Beisser, had easy pickings. So who cared, except Creighton?
KU went 17-9 in 1943-44, when Utah with Mel Hutchins and Arnie Ferrin won the NCAA title, 12-5 in 1944-45 when Oklahoma A & won the first of two straight crowns. Then Kansas won the league trophy again in 1945-46. Charlie Black, Otto Schnellbacher and Ray Evans came back from the Army Air Corps to join the likes of Gib Stramel and Owen Peck. At 19-1, it was on to the district playoff for the Kansans -- with dreams of another Final Four appearance.
Only trouble was, Oklahoma A & M, the defending NCAA champion, still had an awesome control tower named Bob Kurland. The Aggies of the Missouri Valley Conference had whipped Kansas 46-28 the preceding Dec. 27 in Oklahoma City; they were the district foes in Kansas City. A & M won 49-38 and Kansas went home with a glossy 19-2 mark but no tourney berth.
I never saw the 6-4 Charlie Black play as hard and as brilliantly as he did that night trying to cope with the seven-foot Kurland. Charlie drove himself into total exhaustion; 6-6 Jack Ballard tried to help but got so many fouls so quickly I thought the officials had been bought off.
Good as they were, the 1945-46 Jayhawks weren't quite on a par with repeat champion Oklahoma A & M. But that '42-43 aggregation might well have brought home the bacon had The Big Hate not come along. This sometimes-forgotten outfit belongs in the same class with teams like those of 1953, 1957 and 1966. With just the hint of a smile from Dame Fortune at the right time, all might have done what the 1952 and 1988 clubs did.
Came the end of War Two and a period of adjustment for the KU program. All-American Howard Engleman, then a law student, took over in 1947 when Phog Allen was forced into recuperation by a head injury.
Doc, determined to kill rumors he was washed up, stormed back and hired ex-star Dick Harp as his assistant. Recognizing how drastically the recruiting format had changed, they brought in the likes of Clyde Lovellette, Bill Hougland, Bill Lienhard, Bob Kenney and the Kelley boys. It took them a while to get it right.
Even with The Big Four, KU was 14-11 in 1950, 16-8 in 1951 and didn't even get to an NCAA Regional until 1952. That's when the Olympic Seven came of age and won not only national but international glory.
Sure would have loved seeing the Boys of '42-43 get a shot at the brass ring.