The only time any West Virginia University basketball team was ever ranked No. 1 in the country was for a 10-week section of the 1957-58 season. “No. 1″ fell on WVU’s shoulders after Coach Fred Schaus and his Mountaineers defeated both Kentucky and North Carolina in the 1957 University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament (UKIT), a tournament staged at 11,000-seat Memorial Coliseum in Lexington just days before Christmas.
North Carolina had won the 1957 NCAA championship. It came undefeated to the UKIT and was the No. 1-ranked team in the land.
Much later, in mid-March, the “Fiddlin’ Five” of Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp would win the 1958 national championship.
The people in the Bluegrass State were going to get an early Christmas present with Kentucky playing West Virginia and North Carolina facing Minnesota on the first evening of the two-night tournament.
Schaus floored a usual starting lineup that had a 6-foot-10 center in senior Lloyd Sharrar, 6-foot-3 junior forward Bobby Joe Smith, 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Jerry West, 6-foot-2 senior guard Don Vincent, and 6-foot senior guard Joedy Gardner.
Kentucky was far from a polished unit. Rupp labled his halting team the “Fiddlin’ Five” because of the team’s nasty habit of falling behind at the beginning of nearly every game. And Rupp couldn’t find a useful center, vainly trying Phil Johnson, Don Mills, and Ed Beck before finally settling on the 6-foot-7 Beck from Fort Valley, Ga.
It was a long time until mid-March and the NCAA tournament, but on that pre-Christmas night in Lexington the season’s No. 1 ranked team (West Virginia) would play the 1958 season’s eventual national champion (Kentucky).
Rupp was widely credited with being one of the creators of fast break basketball. His teams ran when it was at all possible. For most of his 43-season career at Kentucky, he used a man-to-man defense that also helped bring an upbeat tempo to his games, especially those played in his often-frenzied Memorial Coliseum.
Schaus and his energetic band of smallish players (except for Sharrar) were most effective when using a withering fast break and a full court pressure defense.
West Virginia vs. Kentucky was going to be a fast-moving treat for those inside the nation’s largest on-campus arena.
The Mountaineers would give the “Man in the Brown Suit” reason to display his fuming and sarcastic ways. West Virginia took a 47-32 lead at the half and completed its mission with all five starters scoring in double figures as it won, 77-70.
Schaus had used only two substitutes, the scoreless Willie Akers and the scoreless Bob Clousson.
The next night, West Virginia with its drumbeat style and one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude defeated North Carolina. Schaus and his band of never-stop-underdogs assumed North Carolina’s vacated No. 1 position in both the Associated Press and coaches polls.
As the regular season played out, West Virginia went undefeated through its Southern Conference schedule and Kentucky scrambled through the SEC to post a 12-2 league record and finish overall with six losses. The Wildcat losses to Georgia Tech and Auburn were not enough to keep from them from winning the league championship and the berth in the NCAA tournament.
West Virginia lost only one. It was to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. As would take place later on March 7, 1958 at the Richmond Coliseum, guard Don Vincent would become an ironic figure.
Vincent didn’t start the game against Duke that was lost.
On Friday, March 7, in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals, Vincent broke a leg toward the very end of the game against Richmond.
On Saturday, March 8, the Mountaineers, with diminutive Ronnie Retton as a starter, beat William & Mary for the tournament championship.
Retton had scored four points in the semifinal win over Richmond. For one of the few times all season, Vincent didn’t reach double figures, scoring six points.
The 5-foot-7 Retton scored two points as a starter against William & Mary. Reserve forward Willie Akers had 12 points and nine rebounds in that tournament championship game.
Vincent would score in double figures in 20 of West Virginia’s games.
Another irony about the broken leg misfortune was that one of two officials working the Richmond game was Lou Bello. After the Mountaineers beat William & Mary on a Saturday, they boarded a train the next day for New York City and the beginning of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday, March 11 at Madison Square Garden.
Officiating that NCAA game against Manhattan was Lou Bello.
Since Retton had not contributed much in the Southern Conference championship game, Schaus started Akers against New York City-based Manhattan College.
The Mountaineers had very little practice time with either Akers or Retton in the starting lineup.
Vincent’s absence showed immediately in the NCAA game versus the Manhattan Jaspers.
The game’s frenetic pace was just what West Virginia ordered. But nothing else would be colored in old gold and blue.
Bello and fellow referee John Nucatola were whistling personal fouls at an alarming rate.
West Virginia was using its vaunted full court pressure defense and Manhattan was not intimidated. The Jaspers moved at the same greyhound pace. They were even better at the broiling speed of the game than was West Virginia.
Manhattan led at the half, 56-49.
Bello and partner had both teams reeling from the many fouls they called.
Akers had started in Retton’s place. The rough-and-tumble son of little Mullens, West Virginia was in the sights of both officials.
The second half had both sides using reserve-filled lineups.
Manhattan maintained its advantage, winning, 89-84.
Jerry West would foul out with only 10 points. Lloyd Sharrar fouled out with 14 points. A third West Virginia player, Joedy Gardner, fouled out with 15 points. Akers was a fourth Mountaineer to leave with five fouls. He had eight points.
Bobby Joe Smith made it through with four fouls, scoring a team-high 18 points. Reserves Bucky Bolyard helped with nine points and Retton was effective enough this time with seven points.
West Virginia had been whistled for 32 fouls. The Jaspers were just as taxed, being whistled for 29 fouls and losing four players to five fouls themselves.
Vincent had not started against Duke. And the Mountaineers lost for the only time prior to the Manhattan game. And he couldn’t start against the Jaspers because he had his broken leg in a cast.
Lou Bello officiated the game when Vincent was injured. Lou Bello officiated the NCAA game where the No. 1 Mountaineers were stopped . . . and pushed out of the tournament.
Kentucky came into the NCAA tournament with a 19-6 record. Rupp’s Wildcats defeated Miami of Ohio, 94-70, in Lexington and they won the Mideast Regional the next night, again on their home floor at Memorial Coliseum, with a 89-56 romp past Notre Dame.
Rupp’s fiddlers were in the Final Four.
That tournament was held at Freedom Hall in Louisville. If the “Fiddlin’ Five” could win two more they would be the national champion without ever playing a tournament game outside the state of Kentucky.
Kentucky got past Temple, 61-60, in the national semifinals. Elgin Baylor and the Seattle Chieftains were the competition in the national finals. Seattle once led by 11 points in the first half. But Baylor went 9-for-32 from field, and Kentucky won going away, 84-72.
West Virginia had been No. 1 in both polls taken just prior to the NCAA tournament. Kentucky had been ninth in the Associated Press voting and only 14th in the coaches poll.
The Mountaineers and Wildcats had played in the UKIT. West Virginia used that tournament as a springboard to the No. 1 ranking. Kentucky had been beaten by the Mountaineers in December. But the Wildcats put away their fiddles and used the magic created by Johnny Cox, Vernon Hatton, Adrian Smith, and John Crigler to win the 1958 national championship, the last of the four titles won by Rupp.