March 30, 1943, 80 years ago today: Wyoming wins the NCAA Tournament with a 46-34 win over Georgetown in the championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York. Kenny Sailors, the College Player of the Year, showed off his then-unusual jump shot and scored 16 points to lead the Cowboys. The Pokes won it with a 20-3 run over the final six minutes of the game. Sailors then served two years with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. He returned to Wyoming in time for the 1945-46 season and won another Player of the Year award.
As WyoHistory.org tells it, many credible basketball historians and legendary coaches from the era consider Sailors to be the sport’s first pure jump shooter. Before that, the two-handed, flat-footed set shot was the norm. Sailors developed the jumper while growing up in Hillsdale, WY, during the Great Depression, playing against his 6-5 brother, Bud. They’d compete on a dirt court with a rusted iron rim at the family farm. Bud kept swatting away Kenny’s set shots, so Kenny jumped as high as he could and popped shots over his big brother. “I thought, ‘that guy is big, and I’m not very big. But I can jump,’” Sailors recalled in 2014. And so a standard basketball skill lierally got off the ground.
Wyoming’s big win gave it an NCAA Tournament title, but not necessarily a national championship—at least not yet. In the early years of what would become the Big Dance, it was actually seen as less important than the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Schools were allowed to play in both tournaments in the same season, although the Cowboys didn’t appear in the 1943 NIT (it was won by St. John’s). So Wyoming later played St. John’s in Madison Square Garden to settle it, and the Pokes won 52-47 in overtime.
NCAA Tournament winners Utah and Kentucky also competed in the NIT in 1944 and 1949, respectively, but neither won it. The only school to sweep the two tourneys was City College of New York in 1950. By the time the mid-1950s rolled around, the NCAA Tournament had ascended to its perch atop the college basketball world.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)