Golden Basketball Magazine

Season in Time: CCNY 1949-50 - I

Founded in 1847, City College of New York (CCNY) was the first free public institution of higher education in the United States.

  • After World War II, CCNY became a national power in basketball under longtime coach Nat Holman.
  • After playing college basketball at New York University, Holman joined the Original Celtics, a barnstorming professional basketball team that was founded right after World War I. Composed mostly of players from the West Side of New York City, the team played in various leagues and toured the country - a white forerunner of the Harlem Globetrotters.
  • While playing for the Celtics (not to be confused with the Boston Celtics) until 1930, Holman also coached CCNY's team starting in 1919.
  • The Beavers didn't have a losing season in Holman's tenure until they finished 8-10 in 1942-43, then 6-11 the following year during World War II.

CCNY earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1946-47 after compiling a 14-4 regular season record.

  • They defeated Wisconsin 70-56 in the East Regional quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
  • Holy Cross upended the Beavers 60-45 in the semifinals.
  • Texas edged CCNY 54-50 in the third place game.

Holman's 1947-48 team fared even better, going 18-3. However, they were not selected for post season play by either the NCAA or the NIT.

In the fall of 1948, five players - all products of New York City high schools - entered City College as the finest collection of freshmen in school history.

  • Herb Cohen, Floyd Layne, Ed Roman, Al Roth, and Ed Warner were all presumed to have met CCNY's rigid academic qualifications and were not solicited for their basketball skills.
  • Restricted to playing freshman ball for one year, as required by NCAA rules at the time, the Fab Five watched the varsity compiled an 18-3 record that included a trip to the NIT Quarterfinals at a time when the National Invitational Tournament was considered more prestigious than the NCAA tournament.
  • The freshmen joined two seniors, Irwin Dambrot and Norman Mager, for a magical varsity season of 1949-50 that has never been duplicated before or since.
    1949-50 CCNY Beavers
With an abundance of talent, Holman started the season doing something he had never done before.
  • He experimented with a two-platoon system, mixing sophomores and lettermen on each five. He wanted to use them as separate units until he learned the strengths and weaknesses of each player in order to find the best starting blend.
  • CCNY started with two easy victories over Queens College and Lafayette. Lou Effrat of the New York Times was impressed with what he saw. "The Lavender is loaded."
  • The Beavers breezed past SMU, Kings Point, and Brooklyn College by a combined 93 points. Observers had to wonder if Holman could have won each game with just his second unit.

Teams from other parts of the country, like SMU, loved to come to the Big Apple during Christmas break and play in Madison Square Garden.

  • Before facing three Western foes in succession, Holman decided to make one change in his starting lineup. He replaced senior Mike Wittlin at guard with sophomore Floyd Layne, "a wiry, gangling defensive specialist."
  • The result was the first loss of the season, 67-63 at the hands of "a seasoned, methodical Oklahoma team." CCNY was "unable to cope with the Sooners' double-screen offense."
  • An easy win over California followed before the Beavers lost to "a strong UCLA team" by seven teams in their last game before the calendar turned to 1950.
  • Ed Roman had emerged as the team's top offensive player, leading the team in scoring in six of the first eight games. Another super soph, Ed Warner, took high honors the other two games.

Next came the annual clash with city rival St. John's, which was undefeated after twelve games, including an 11-point win over #1 Kentucky and an easy victory over San Francisco, the defending NIT champs.

  • City, with its 6-2 record and no wins over teams with national stature, was a decided underdog against the new #1 team in the AP poll.
  • Holman restored the more experienced Wittlin to his starting backcourt in place of sophomore Al Roth.
  • The Beavers responded with their finest half of the season. They "appeared to be carried on pockets of air as they glided up and down the court, the ball passed from one to the other as if controlled by a puppeteer's strings. They whirled and turned in swift ballets of motion, their shots almost anticlimactic." The result was a 27-18 halftime lead.
  • Nat decided to use an all-sophomore lineup the second half. The move worked well at first as City increased its lead to 41-26. Then he ordered his boys to freeze the ball, running the weave with no shot clock to force a change of possession.
  • The move almost cost CCNY the game. Losing all the rhythm that had built a 15-point lead, the Beavers turned the ball multiple times. The veteran Redmen methodically ate into the lead until they trailed by only two, 50-48, with just minutes to play.
  • Returning to their regular offense, City scored a basket when pivotman Roman fed Warner driving past Al McGure (future outstanding coach and TV commentator).
  • Trailing 54-51, St. John's had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds. A Redman drove looking for a three-point play - basket and foul. Roth fouled him as he shot, but the ball bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded. One of two FTs made the final margin just two.
  • Roman with 23 and Warner with 17 accounted for 40 of City's 54 points. They combined for all but four of the second half points.
  • The victory earned CCNY a #7 ranking in the next AP poll, which St. John's continued to top.

Playing with more and more confidence, the Beavers ripped through their next six opponents.

  • Running Holman's intricate passing offense almost to perfection, City dazzled the Madison Square Garden crowd in an 80-55 romp over West Virginia.
  • A week later, CCNY rang up 95 points, an astounding total in 1950, against Muhlenberg in the first of five straight road games. Never easy to please, Nat called it the team's best game of the season.
  • Wins over Boston College (54-46), Princeton (56-46), and St. Francis of Brooklyn (68-46) followed. Princeton, the Ivy League champions, used a pressing zone defense to hold City to just 23 first-half points. But the Beavers got their fast break rolling after intermission to give Holman his 500th victory as CCNY coach.
But the 13th win may have caused bad luck.
  • The Beavers lost their next two, starting with a 53-49 defeat at Canisius.
  • Back home in the Garden, City its their worst game of the season against Niagara, 68-61. Holman said his team had gone sour, causing a drop to 13th in the national rankings.
  • Even though they won the next two over St. Joseph's and Fordham, the Beavers didn't return to the form they displayed during the winning streak. "Its fast break sputtered, its ball handling had become slovenly, its shooting sporadic." The team had lost its ability to control the tempo of a game.
  • Matters got worse when Syracuse came to town and beat City at its own game. Behind ten entering the home stretch, the Beavers pulled within one. But the Orangemen responded with eight in a row to win 83-74.
  • Post-season play, which seemed to be a cinch two weeks earlier, now appeared problematical. City was not listed among the top 30 teams in the nation.

The Beavers needed wins over city rivals Manhattan and NYU to have any shot at the NIT.

  • Holman's squad jumped out to an 11-point lead against the Jaspers only to revert to more recent form and find themselves tied entering the closing minutes. Warner converted a three-point play in the final minute for a four-point lead. Victory seemed certain when Manhattan missed a shot and City rebounded. But Roth threw the ball away on a fast break and Manhattan got a basket to pull within two at 57-55. Poor ball handling gave the opponent five scoring opportunities in the last 20 seconds, but no more scoring resulted.
  • The NYU contest followed the same script. Run to a 12-point lead only to let it slip away. Fall six points behind midway in the second half, then put on a late push to take a lead and use a precarious last-minute freeze to pull out the 64-61 victory.

CCNY's record of 17-5 was good enough to gain one of the last three bids to the NIT.

  • The way the team had played down the stretch gave no one confidence they could last long in the tournament.
  • "I hope we can justify the invitation," said Holman.

To be continued ...

Reference: The Game They Played: The True Story of the Point-Shaving Scandal That Destroyed One of College Basketball's Great Teams, Stanley Cohen (2001)

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