In 1941, legendary Wisconsin coach Bud Foster — in his seventh of what would be 25 years in Madison — led his Badgers to their only NCAA championship, via a 39-34 win over Washington State.
To this day, that is the lowest-scoring national championship in history. We watched game film from the matchup to figure out what happened.
But first, some background. The 1941 NCAA tournament was just the third in history, and had eight teams — Wisconsin, Dartmouth, North Carolina and Pittsburgh in the East, and Washington State, Creighton, Wyoming and Arkansas in the West.
The nine games that tournament averaged a combined point total of 88 points.
In the 80 NCAA tournaments since the first in 1939, the average combined point total in a championship game is 135.6 points. Winning teams score an average of 72.4 points, while the runners-up score 63.2. So, how did Wisconsin and Washington State combine to score 63 fewer points than average?
Luckily for us, a silent video from the game was uploaded to YouTube by Washington State University’s Libraries, and features almost 11 minutes of action. It doesn’t show the whole game and cuts between plays often. As such, it’s impossible to know the score at any given point, and pretty difficult to identify players. Regardless, there is plenty to learn from game film of the lowest-scoring championship game in history.
Here is what we saw, with timestamped videos of each moment:
Wisconsin controls the tip. After they bring the ball up court, there are six passes before a shot, without a single Badger taking a dribble. On Wisconsin’s next possession, seven passes lead to a running right hook off the glass for the first points of the video. Three fans in the crowd stand to cheer.
Washington State’s first possession on camera shows us the first jump shot of the game, and it’s…something. The shot clangs off the rim, and after an offensive rebound, three photographers near the action fire away, setting off intense flashes that cause the video camera to underexpose the action momentarily.
Washington State nails a jumper that may have hit the ceiling in a high school gym. There are literally two whole seconds between the shot’s release and it hitting the net. The shooter watches his shot for an entire second, then walks five steps before it falls through. And man, just look at that follow-through. But hey, it went in.
Here we see a stretch of four shots in a row that date the game more than the black and white footage or the high top shorts — the running floater from way outside. You’ve got to give it to these guys who have the confidence in their game to event attempt the running floater, which happens to look more like a ballet move than a basketball shot. Alas, none of the four go in.
A 3-pointer… if this shot was taken 46 years later when the three-point line was introduced to the NCAA tournament in 1987. Still, that’s some nice range for the era. Now back to the running floaters. Hey! One went in!
Another shot you won’t see in the 2019 NCAA tournament: The 20-foot banked hook shot. And for good reason. That’s a ridiculously hard shot. But he made it. Why is no one on at this game as impressed by this as us?
No one wants the ball. There are eight passes around the perimeter before the camera cuts away, with no shot taken. Wisconsin is using a lot of pump-faked passes to shift the Washington State zone, but without any cutting players, they don’t take advantage of the openings.
There’s a struggle for possession, when a referee calls a jump ball. Like in the current NBA, the players line up in the free throw circle for the jump.
Is this a fast break? The camera cuts to the action just as a Wisconsin player — ahead of the pack — receives a long pass, pump fakes the lone defender, then rises for a layup.
This one is definitely a fast break, with good lane filling and passing to boot. The finish is outside the frame.
Here’s another jump ball, but this one is being held in a random area of the court. Was it just held at the spot of the tie-up?
A behind-the-back pass (kinda)! That was ahead of its time.
Another fast break, but the Wisconsin center — who looks twice the size of some of these players — closes in fast and blocks the shot out of bounds.
Underhand free throws! These desperately need to come back.
Here's a mean, ankle-breaking crossover (that happens to break a teammate's ankles too). There's a bit of chaos at the end of the break, but it leads to a wide-open layup.
And that about wraps it up. There’s great video from the trophy ceremony if you stick around after the final score. But here are our main takeaways from the game:
- There were two very different game plans going here. For Wisconsin, getting the ball to the rim was crucial. Washington State opted for the less-contested jumpers. For Washington State, jumpers are 55 percent of the shots shown in the video and 80 percent of the shots made. Compare that to just 32 percent of the total shots taken for Wisconsin, without hitting a single one. Instead, the Badgers saw the most success with layups, where they were 5-for-9 (56 percent), while Washington State was just 2-for-5 (40 percent).
- The running floater was a real shot. Watching it in action over and over makes us wonder why (the teams were a combined 1-for-12 in the video), but there’s no denying it was well-established.
- Fun fact: If you notice, the lane is a lot narrower in this video, and with the free throw circle, it looks a lot like a key hole. Hence the lane's nickname: the key.
- Bear with us here as we take a journey to try to see how poorly these teams shot. Missed field goal attempts aren't recorded in the box score for this game, so field goal percentage is unavailable. But from what is shown in the game film, Wisconsin shot 9-for-28 (32 percent), and Washington State was 10-for-38 (26 percent). From the made field goals in the box score, we can determine that 11 made field goals don't appear in the video — seven for Wisconsin, and four for Washington State. So even in the very unlikely scenario that those were the only 11 shots that weren't recorded (meaning there were no missed field goals not shown in the video), Wisconsin would be 16-for-35 (46 percent) and Washington State would be 14-for-42 (33 percent). Meaning that in the best possible case (which is highly, highly unlikely), the teams still combined to shoot 38 percent for the game. Yikes.
- From the research for this story, we learned that the highest scoring decade for NCAA championships was the 70s, where championship games averaged 150.7 total points, including Kentucky’s 94-88 win over Duke in 1978, which holds the record for the highest scoring title game in history, at 182 total points — just 109 points more than this 1941 matchup.
- Also from the research: Connecticut’s 53-41 win over Butler in 2011 is the only time since 1949 that a championship game has totaled fewer than 100 points.