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Two Losing Teams Earned Their at-Large Spots in '55

By Bob Christ
Of the Journal
    Fifty years ago, there was considerably less fanfare to "Selection Sunday," or whatever day it was the NCAA revealed which teams would participate in its men's basketball tournament.
    "We'd mail out the brackets to the press and hope they'd wind up using them," said former longtime NCAA executive Wayne Duke. "Now newspapers are filling up whole pages."
    Just like today, though, the NCAA brain trust would set up a command post somewhere and carve out the field for its postseason showcase.
    In 1955, that meant picking 24 teams. Since 15 were automatic qualifiers from conferences, it shouldn't have been a back-breaking chore to find nine other worthy squads.
    A casual glance at this particular bracket makes you wonder whether those NCAA "selectors" were really just having a kegger and throwing darts at the wall. Why else would they have awarded Bradley University (7-19) and Oklahoma City University (9-17) at-large invitations to the Big Dance?
    Today, 50 years later, those teams still have the worst records of any to participate in March Madness.
    And that's not all. The NCAA even paired them in the first round, making their matchup the only all-losers game in tournament history.
    A quick call to the NCAA's basketball media headquarters did next to nothing to answer the question, "Why?"
    "That's unbelievable," said Bill Hancock said, executive director of the tournament from 1989-2002. "I have no idea why they would have picked those two. I'd like to know."
    He suggested talking to someone who was there at the time. That would be Duke.
    As it turns out, the NCAA tied its own hands on the matter before the season. It had been predetermined that two independents from Region 5 would receive at-large bids— no matter what.
    Surely you can see where this is going.
    It turns out that of the five eligible independents from the region, five had losing records.
    "Right, we were stuck," said Duke, then executive assistant to NCAA director Walter Byers, but emphasizing he wasn't part of the bracketing process. "That was amazing. But we had just a handful of at-large teams there, and although we recognized at that time we shouldn't have teams with that kind of record, we had spots to fill.
    "As a result of this experience, things changed the very next year. I was among others who said, 'Let's make those at-large bids optional.' ''
    Great, but it was too late to save the 1955 tournament, which was still under the longstanding NCAA rule of not allowing second-place teams in a conference to participate in its tourney. That meant squads in the area such as St. Louis (20-8) and Wichita (17-9) in the Missouri Valley Conference and Missouri (16-5), then of the Big Seven, could only look on with rage and/or bewilderment as Bradley and OCU readied for battle.
    Harvey Babetch, Bradley's leading scorer that season, wasn't lying when he said the bid took his team by surprise, especially when the Braves were 5-19 late in the season and on a 14-game losing streak.
    "We weren't thinking about it, but we sure got excited," he said when the team learned of its berth. "We knew once we got on the tournament, the season starts there."
    If nothing else, Bradley had tournament know-how to draw from— it reached the NCAA final the year before despite a 15-12 regular-season record.
    In that first round in 1955, eight games were played— seven of which were on big stages. There were three in New York, two in San Francisco and two on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington. Guess which teams played at the 4,000-seat Thunderbird Coliseum in El Reno, Okla.?
    Duke theorized that a logical reason these teams were paired was because first-round games then usually matched teams from the same general area and were played at nearby locales. Also, this was well before teams were seeded.
    Babetch scored a game-high 21 points as Bradley beat OCU 69-65, the first time in NCAA history a team with a losing record won a game.
    The Braves then advanced to the regional semifinals in Manhattan, Kan., where they won again, beating Southwest Conference champion SMU, 81-79, when Art Barnes missed a layup at the buzzer and left the court crying.
    This particular Cinderella story ended the next night in a 93-81 loss to Big Seven winner Colorado.
    "We were just playing our hearts out," Babetch said. "We knew there was no tomorrow."