Memorable Mizzou Postseason Moments (Part Five): 1944

With college basketball's postseason is upon us, there is no better time to reflect on previous Mizzou postseason magic.  To do that, we will turn to the history book to end all Mizzou Basketball history books.


True Sons, A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball by Michael Atchison traces the first hundred years of the Mizzou hoops program with recaps of each season and more than 300 photographs.  The book may be purchased from the Mizzou Alumni Association for $35 plus shipping by calling (573) 882-6611 or (800) 372-6822.

Part One: 1978
Part Two: 1987
Part Three: 1991
Part Four: 1993

Few seasons have been more trying or complicated than 1943-44, but the year culminated with an unexpected trip to the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament.

***

In 1938, enrollment at MU had surged past five thousand. By 1943 it was down to fifteen hundred as men went off to war. But even as other activities around campus and the country were curtailed, college athletics—including Big Six basketball—carried on to help boost morale on the home front. Even so, Kansas coach Phog Allen undoubtedly was right in his assessment that "not many people will take a wartime championship seriously. With us here athletics are simply incidental to the war effort."

That effort had decimated the Tigers. Thornton Jenkins, Pleasant Smith, and others should have led Missouri’s fight for a Big Six title. Instead, they were engaged in a fight of infinitely greater consequence. And with a dwindling student population, George Edwards’s immediate challenge was not to win the conference; it was simply to field a team.

Edwards’s challenge was far greater than that faced by Allen at Kansas, Louis Menze at Iowa State, or Bruce Drake at Oklahoma. Those schools hosted naval training units. Their teams drew from deep and talented pools of nascent sailors. Iowa State even acquired an All-American in the process when West Texas State’s Price Brookfield, a high-scoring center, was shipped north by the armed forces.

In contrast, Missouri (like Kansas State and Nebraska) made do with civilian students—men too young to serve, unfit to serve or deferred from service. In assembling his team, Edwards started virtually from scratch. Ed Matheny, the only returning contributor, was set to graduate in December, meaning that by the holidays the starting five would consist entirely of players who had not before worn the Missouri uniform.


Edwards grabbed all manner of men to find four to start alongside Matheny. From the intramural ranks he snatched the Minx twins—Beauford, a guard, and Clifford, a forward—who were deferred to pursue civilian engineering degrees. From the 4-F rolls he snatched Paul Collins, a Tiger football star and future NFL player who, ironically, had been declared unfit for military duty. And from the cradle he snatched Dan Pippin, a six-foot-one coiled spring from Waynesville, Missouri, who started at center. At age seventeen, the freshman was too young for the draft and almost too good to be true. The wiry youngster was athletic enough to go toe-to-toe with much bigger players and skilled enough to dominate smaller ones.

Despite his skills, Pippin was literally a boy among men on most nights, and the schools with mature military men were clear Big Six favorites. Kansas had earned at least a share of the conference title each of the previous four seasons and had swept through the league undefeated in 1943. Oklahoma returned all-conference guard Allie Paine, who would soon rise to All-America. And Iowa State, in addition to Price Brookfield, had Roy and Ray, the talented Wehde twins.

Edwards’s innocents were baptized by fire. Early on, as the coach tried to forge his grab bag of 4-Fs and baby faces into a team, the Tigers faced a steady diet of military men and accomplished collegians. Missouri showed some moxie by roughing up the 61st Troop Carrier Wing of Sedalia Air Base in a 49–29 season opening win. It then put a scare into defending Big Ten champ Illinois, leading by seven at halftime before fading.

The Tigers took their 1–1 record to Kansas City for a four-team tournament at Municipal Auditorium. On day one, Missouri played the Washburn Ichabods, a team of servicemen. After trailing for the first thirty-six minutes, the Tigers took a 26–24 lead when Lennie Brown, a speedy freshman, hit a running left-hander. Washburn regained the lead, but Missouri prevailed in the late stages on a tip-in by six-foot-five freshman beanpole Bob Heinsohn, his gangly appearance exaggerated by shorts cut high on the hips and socks that barely rose above the ankles. Dan Pippin led Missouri with eleven points and seemed to get every rebound.

Kansas routed K-State in the nightcap behind twenty-eight points from Don Barrington, setting up a showdown between ancient rivals in the tournament final. Coach Edwards assigned Pippin and fellow freshman Benny Arbeitman to hold Barrington in check, and they did as the Tigers shot to an 18–7 lead. But the green Missouri club faded, and Kansas pulled away for a 34–27 win in a game that did not count in the conference standings.

After defeating the military men of Westminster College at Fulton, the Tigers returned home to again face the Jayhawks, who had won twelve straight conference games. "Kansas figures to repeat its recent Kansas City victory over Missouri down at Columbia," declared the Kansas City Times. Missouri figured otherwise and stunned KU 35–28. Paul Collins, already known as a fierce defender, led the Tigers with ten points and displayed open court skills that belied his inexperience. After a 14–14 halftime tie, Collins and Pippin led a decisive surge.

The high of that win subsided as the schedule stiffened. Double-digit losses to league leaders Oklahoma and Iowa State bracketed a defeat against the Olathe Naval Air Station team. Any Big Six title hopes vanished in painful fashion when Oklahoma visited Columbia. Missouri led most of the way, but the Sooners rallied and escaped with a 27–26 win. With the Sooners and Iowa State still undefeated, the Tigers, at 1–2, were playing for third place.

The schedule gave them a chance. Missouri’s next three games came against the league’s other nonmilitary teams. At Nebraska, Paul Collins recorded two field goals in overtime to push Mizzou past the Cornhuskers 36–32. Kansas State provided less resistance in Manhattan, as the Tigers cruised 45–30 behind eighteen points from Pippin. Then, in a rematch with Nebraska, the Tigers prevailed 44–29 as Pippin and Cliff Minx combined for twenty-three.

After avenging their earlier loss to the Olathe Clippers, the Tigers found themselves with a four-game win streak. Edwards’s mismatched parts had blended into a surprisingly good unit, with Collins and Pippin playing at a particularly high level.

But tough challenges remained. Iowa State came to Columbia and stayed undefeated in conference play. Missouri’s defense rendered Price Brookfield harmless and the Cyclones led by just two at halftime. But when Ray Wehde nailed three successive field goals in the second half, Iowa State pulled away. Next came a contest at Kansas, the winner guaranteed at least a tie for third in the Big Six. It was all Jayhawks. KU took the lead early and never looked back, prevailing 40–27.

With one game to play, the Tigers stood fourth in the league, ahead only of the other civilian teams. But the Jayhawks remained within reach. A Kansas loss to Iowa State, combined with a Missouri win over Kansas State, would leave the rivals deadlocked for third.

Iowa State did its part by whipping Kansas, and the Tigers capitalized by drubbing the Wildcats 38–14 in the season’s most dominant performance. Missouri’s defense stifled K-State, which hit its first field goal with less than a minute to play in the opening half. Cliff Minx and Dale Crowder scored eight points apiece to lead a balanced Tiger attack.

For Mizzou, the win secured the undisputed championship of Big Six civilians, but the Tigers remained far behind the best military teams. The final Big Six standings reflected a rare symmetry. Iowa State and Oklahoma tied for the title at 9–1, followed by Missouri and Kansas at 5–5 and Kansas State and Nebraska at 1–9. Given the circumstances, Mizzou’s 9–8 overall record and third-place finish seemed like utter triumph. Still, unbeknownst to the Tigers, opportunity remained for greater glory.

As war played havoc with the NCAA Tournament, the big question was who would represent the Big Six in the eight-team field. The question was complicated because Navy regulations restricted the time that trainees stationed at Iowa State and Oklahoma could be away from their base. If a team of trainees could win the western regional in Kansas City, the regulations might preclude them from traveling to New York for the finals.

The NCAA invited Iowa State, but the Cyclones declined the bid for fear that they could not keep the team together throughout the tournament. The NCAA then approached Oklahoma. But the Sooners also declined, citing the Navy’s regulations. That raised speculation that Missouri, the league’s top team not subject to the regulations, might receive the NCAA bid despite a mediocre record. But Iowa State reconsidered, thus ending Missouri’s faint hopes.

Or so it seemed. On March 13, 1944, the University of Iowa withdrew from the tournament upon learning that its two leading scorers were to be drafted into the armed forces. In a pinch, the NCAA called on Missouri, with its proximity to Kansas City and its well-respected coach. After conferring with the other conference schools, the university accepted the bid.

Ten days after the season had ended, Coach Edwards reassembled his team. By then, Dan Pippin had been named first team All-Big Six by the Associated Press, while the United Press had bestowed the same honor on Paul Collins, remarkable achievements under the circumstances.

Missouri’s late addition was not the last shake-up of the field. The Tigers should have played Arkansas in the first round, but tragedy intervened. The Southwest Conference champs were returning to Fayetteville after a scrimmage with a military team when a car carrying the starters suffered a flat tire. As the players changed the tire, a car rammed them at full speed, killing their faculty sponsor and seriously injuring two starters. The devastated Razorbacks withdrew from the field just days before the tournament was 
to begin.

That cruel fate provided opportunity for Utah, a team full of freshmen who spent the season as nomads after the Army commandeered their gym. Utah had declined an NCAA bid in favor of the NIT, but after Kentucky bounced them in round one, the NCAA called and asked the Utes to take Arkansas’ place. Given a second chance at a national title, they cut short a New York sightseeing tour and hopped a train for Kansas City.

Dubbed the Blitz Kids, Utah was the only team to play in both national tournaments in 1944. Freshman forward Arnie Ferrin was their star, but much of their heart rested in five-foot-seven guard Wat Misaka, an American of Japanese heritage who absorbed opposing fans’ bigoted taunts throughout the year.

The Tigers and Utes squared off before 4,622 fans in Missouri’s tournament debut. At a time when two-handed set shots still prevailed, Utah flicked one-handers from every direction. The style frustrated the Tiger defense. Ferrin’s shooting pushed the Blitz Kids to an 18–10 lead. Missouri closed the gap to 18–14, but a Utah spurt put the Tigers in a 27–14 hole at the half. Despite the deficit, the Tigers, and particularly Paul Collins, kept fighting. The two-sport star repeatedly forced his way through Utah’s defense to score a team-high ten points. It wasn’t nearly enough. Utah triumphed 35–25 before going on to win the NCAA Tournament. 

The Tigers weren’t finished. They would play Pepperdine in the regional consolation game. Six-foot-seven Nick Buzolich gave the Tigers fits, scoring twenty-three points before fouling out. But he got little help from his teammates, three of whom fouled out along with him. The Tigers, in contrast, got the usual steady performances from Pippin and Collins plus the game of Cliff Minx’s life. He capped his intramural-to-varsity career by scoring twenty-one points as Missouri prevailed 61–46.

After some false endings, Missouri’s 1943–44 season finally came to a close. The 10–9 record didn’t sparkle, but the team’s achievement did. The Tigers’ play stood as a monument to George Edwards, who coaxed a lot from very little in the twilight of his career and helped to put Missouri on a national stage. It would be a very long time until Missouri played on such a stage again.

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