Some teams, including a couple of conference champions, turned down the chance to play in the tournament. No team would do that now!
The National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which was played in New York City, was considered a bigger deal. The 1939 NIT Final drew more than 18,000 fans to Madison Square Garden.
The University of Oregon won the NCAA Western regional by beating the universities of Texas and Oklahoma. Ohio State University defeated Wake Forest and Villanova to win the Eastern regional.
The two teams met in the championship game at a 9,000-seat arena at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Oregon won, 46-33. Estimates of the crowd at the final game were about 4,000 to 5,000 fans.
Basketball games in the 1930s were often low-scoring. The Oregon Ducks were considered a high-scoring team because they averaged 46 points a game. Now some college teams score more than 80 points a game.
One of the reasons games were low-scoring was that players shot long, two-hand set shots (not jump shots) and were not very good. The Oregon team made 17 of its 63 shots (27 percent) against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were worse. They made only 14 of 83 shots (16.9 percent).
Another reason games were low-scoring was that goaltending — blocking the ball on its way down to the basket — was allowed in 1939. In one NIT game, Mike Novak, a 6-foot-9-inch center from Loyola University Chicago, swatted away nine shots from the basket.
Of course, the NCAA and NIT games were not broadcast on television. Hardly anyone in the United States owned a television in 1939.
That may be why the coaches were not paid as much as today’s coaches. Howard Hobson, the head coach of the champion Oregon Ducks, was paid $3,800 a year. Hobson also served as the school’s head baseball coach. Today more than 20 men’s college basketball coaches make more than $3 million a year.
As I said, the first NCAA basketball tournament was very different from today’s March Madness.
Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 27 sports books for kids. His latest book is “Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association.”