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Remembering the Time Bill Russell Denied Iowa Basketball a National Championship

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The best team in Iowa basketball history came up short in the NCAA championship against one of the game’s all-time greats.

Kansas v Memphis
Bill Russell at the 2008 Final Four, smiling as he remembers ripping the heart out of Hawkeye fans everywhere (I’m assuming).
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Iowa men’s basketball team is already receiving hype as a potential dark horse pick to win the national championship next season (provided Luka Garza and returns to school, of course). Should the Hawkeyes manage to shock the nation next spring, they would accomplish something that no Iowa basketball team has managed to achieve in program history.

There was one Iowa team that came perilously close to winning the big dance, however. Bucky O’Connor’s 1955-1956 Iowa men’s basketball team, composed of one of the most talented and balanced starting lineups in program history, came about as close as a team can get to cutting down the nets before being defeated in the national championship game.

Michigan’s early 90s quintet of super freshmen may own the nickname “the Fab Five” these days, but the 55-56 Hawkeyes earned that moniker decades earlier. Seniors Bill Logan, Carl Cain, Sharm Scheuerman, Bill Seaburg and Bill Schoof made up one of the most potent starting fives in nation, with each player averaging double-figure scoring per game. Coming off a Big Ten Championship and a Final Four appearance the previous year, this hungry squad of veteran players entered the season eyeing a return to the NCAA tournament and a shot at the title they had fallen just short of the season prior.

Iowa’s 1955-56 season started with great promise, but quickly fell into disarray. After narrowly dropping a road game to Colorado early on, the Hawkeyes lost three straight games during a brutal west coast road trip in late December. By the time they dropped their Big Ten opener to #20 Michigan State, the once formidable and now unranked Hawkeyes held a 3-5 record and appeared poised for an epic collapse.

Then a funny thing happened; the Hawkeyes started wining and never stopped. After upsetting 10th-ranked Ohio State on the road 88-73, Iowa proceeded to win the remainder of its conference games, finishing an incredible 13-1 in Big Ten play. Highlights during this winning streak included narrow wins against Wisconsin, Purdue, and Indiana, as well as an absolute beatdown of the #2 Illinois Fighting Illini in a 96-72 victory that established the Hawkeyes as the conference’s dominant program. Buoyed by double-double machine Bill Logan and future Olympic gold medal winner Carl Cain, the Hawkeyes managed to repeat as conference champions and solidify another bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa wasted no time making its mark on the tournament, defeating Morehead State 97-83 on the strength of Cain’s 28 points and 14 rebounds. Next up was a dangerous Kentucky squad led by legendary coach Adolph Rupp, but another incendiary scoring performance from Cain (34 points), combined with 22 points from future Hawkeye head coach Sharm Scheuerman, helped declaw the Cats in the elite eight 89-77.

Iowa’s Final Four matchup was against a formidable Temple team featuring star guards Hal Lear and Guy Rodgers. Although Temple’s elite scoring duo combined to drop 60 points against the Hawkeyes, Bill Logan’s 36 points and Bill Schoof’s gutty 18 point, 18 rebound game helped propel Iowa to an 83-76 win and a shot at the title.

Unfortunately, Iowa’s championship bid would be denied by the University of San Francisco. The Dons have fallen on hard times in recent decades but were the defending national champions at the time who had yet to lose a game in the 55-56 season. As it turns out, having two future Hall of Famers and multi-time NBA champions in Bill Russell and KC Jones on the roster is a fairly strong formula for collegiate basketball success. The Dons managed to beat the Hawkeyes 83-71 behind Bill Russell’s incredible 26 points and 27 rebound performance in a game that, miraculously, can be watched on video.

Iowa was denied a national championship by one of the five greatest basketball players in history, but the legacy of the 55-56 Hawkeyes remains secure. Not only did each member of the Fabulous Five have their jersey retired by the university, but their team managed to get closer to the mountaintop than any other team in program history. If not for eleven-time NBA champion Bill Russell, they might have reached the summit.