West Virginia’ s one time as No. 1 in the polls
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Some with bowed heads, some with a faraway look in their squinted eyes and others spouting remembrances of a game and its incidents like it was yesterday.
Decades ago it ended with some sadness, but with more “what might have been’s.”
West Virginia was acclaimed as the No. 1 team in the college basketball world, when the 1957-1958 college basketball regular season ended. Only a loss to Duke blemished a season that finished with a 23-1 record and an unbeaten Southern Conference slate.
The Mountaineers have never again been ranked No. 1 in the college basketball world.
Pollsters, pundits and syndicated writers all took the Mountaineers seriously, when they rode a 5-0 record into Lexington, Ky. and readied for the much-publicized holiday tournament known as the UKIT or Kentucky Invitational. Played in Kentucky’s 11,000 seat Memorial Coliseum, West Virginia was paired with Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats in the opening round, while defending national champion North Carolina came in ranked No. 1 and undefeated after traveling through the 1957 season with a 32-0 record.
The Mountaineers defeated Rupp’s “Fiddlin’ Five” in the opening round and topped North Carolina in the finals.
Those two wins bubbled the Mountaineers to the top of the polls.
After 14 straight wins to begin the season, the polls still had WVU on top.
With sophomore Jerry West, junior Bob Smith, senior Lloyd Sharrar, senior Don Vincent and senior Joedy Gardner as coach Fred Schaus’ starters, the first loss came in Durham, N.C. against Duke.
After the streak-breaking loss to the Blue Devils, WVU closed the regular season with nine straight wins and showed a 23-1 regular season record. One of those wins came in Fayetteville, against Washington & Lee, and the last one was in Washington, D.C. at Uline Arena, in double overtime fashion versus George Washington.
To qualify for the NCAA Tournament, WVU had to win the Southern Conference tournament. The Mountaineers swept through Davidson, host Richmond and William & Mary to reach the NCAA event’s first round game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It had not been a smooth ride through the Southern Conference tournament. Starting guard Don Vincent had broken his leg in the last part of the semifinal win over Richmond.
The next night, Vincent had been replaced by sophomore Willie Akers in the starting lineup. Smith moved from forward to guard. As already mentioned, the Mountaineers dispatched William & Mary in the tournament finals, in a game played on a Saturday. But the next Tuesday, they were in New York in the NCAA event to play Manhattan, an independent team that had only a 9-6 regular season record.
West Virginia was still No. 1 after its three victories in the Southern Conference tournament.
The WVU vs. Manhattan Jaspers game was either fast-paced or stopped altogether because of the up-and-down nature of the tempo and the immense number of fouls whistled against both teams.
Manhattan had a 56-49 lead at the half. The second half was much more restrained with its pace. Neither team wanted anything other than the same break-neck pleasure they presented in the first half. But there were 32 fouls called against the Mountaineers. Jerry West, Lloyd Sharrar, Joedy Gardner and Willie Akers all fouled out. And Smith finished with four fouls.
The Jaspers withstood the 29 fouls called against them with Dick Wilbur, Bob Mealy, Pete Brunone and Mickey Burkowski all fouling out. And Burkowski was a reserve.
West Virginia was 28-for-42 from the foul line and the Jaspers were 35-of-49 on their free throws.
Manhattan went on to the East Regional in Charlotte, where they lost to Dartmouth, 79-62. And then the Jaspers lost in the Regional consolation game to complete a 10-8 season.
Never again has a West Virginia team risen to the No. 1 ranking in a well-known national poll.
Vincent’s broken leg has remained a sticking point in the sometimes fabled history of WVU basketball.