A look back at 1931 men's basketball

    The 1931 national championship Wildcats. Photo courtesy of the Northwestern Archives.

    An old article from The Daily Northwestern does a great job of capturing what every Northwestern men’s basketball fan wants to see at Welsh-Ryan Arena in the years to come.

    “Everybody scored!” Jack Jericho wrote. “Everybody had a good time! ‘Twas just a festive night at Patten Gym last night.”

    Jericho is referring to the Big Ten championship team of 1931. But the team’s success did not stop there. The Helms Foundation, an independent publication that retroactively picked the best team for each year before there was an NCAA tournament, voted the Wildcats national champions. The foundation is no longer, but the data lives on in Edwin Caudle’s book, Collegiate Basketball.

    The Wildcats may be far away from the glorious 1931 days with a 16-1 record under Coach Arthur “Dutch” Lonborg, a hall-of-famer. As they finish the regular season with a win versus the University of Minnesota, they work towards building up a team as lauded as Lonborg’s.

    “We certainly recall that season and that accomplishment,” says Mike Wolf, assistant athletic director for athletic communications. “Obviously that was a much different time. It’s something we’re proud of.”

    The 1931 season was especially significant for another reason, too. The Northwestern football team led the Big Ten pack with a 7-1 record. A loss to Notre Dame was the only thing that kept them from the national championship.

    Athletic Director Jim Phillips was unable to comment about basketball seasons of old, but Wolf says that although Northwestern has some great teams in its past, the current squad does not focus on them.

    “Most coaches will tell you that each season is a team in itself,” he says. “It doesn’t even matter what happened last year.”

    Although it might not always be on the minds of coaches and players, 1931 has a lot of rich basketball history to offer fans.

    The team secured sole possession of the Big Ten championship after beating Minnesota in front of a crowd of almost 14,000. They trounced the Golden Gophers, with a 43-15 lead going into the second half, when they put in their reserve players, Captain Bert “Ball Hawk” Riel said in the 1951 centennial history of Northwestern Athletics, The Tale of the Wildcats.

    Joseph Rieff was the star and a three-time All-American. He led the league in scoring during the 1931 season, his junior year, averaging 10 points per game. Riel looked back on his time with Rieff and the rest of the 1931 squad in the book.

    “My memories of that team include [Frank] Marshall’s scintillating speed and dash; Rieff’s brilliant marksmanship and seeming lackadaisical manner; Bus Smith’s earnestness; and the good nature and ever present scoring threat of Bob McCarnes,” he says.

    Joe Ruklick (Medill ’59) was the star of one team not unlike the 1931 Wildcats. After graduating, he went on to play on the Philadelphia Warriors and provide the assist for basketball great Wilt Chamberlain’s last basket in his 100-point game. Ruklick sees firsthand how things have changed with college basketball over the years.

    The All-American center was friendly with several members of team from the early 1930s and easily chats up current players like forward John Shurna. He lives across from the arena and watches each game from the press box.

    He often debates with other Northwestern sports figures from the N Club, an alumni group for Northwestern athletes, about how basketball teams have changed over the decades, especially with more recruiting roadblocks. Ruklick said the university is “inhibited” by its academic requirements that other Big Ten schools do not have.

    “Out of it all came this reassurance that we may not win championships like those two teams of the 1930s, but we can be proud that we offer students a genuine education,” he says.

    Ruklick said he would like to see Northwestern leave the conference and play against schools of its own academic caliber. He did acknowledge, though, that Big Ten recognition helps non-revenue sports like women’s lacrosse.

    For now, though, Northwestern fans have spans like the early 1930s and the late 1950s to look back on and ponder what the Wildcats are capable of achieving, even in a tough conference.

    “The program is as strong as it has ever been,” Wolf says, adding that he is confident that there is a Big Ten title in Northwestern’s near future. For now, Northwestern may be headed towards its third straight year of postseason play in the NIT.

    Although Ruklick disagrees and says that at age 72, he will probably not see a Big Ten title in his lifetime, the faults he sees today do not stop him from enjoying college basketball as much as he did in decades past.

    While the team’s nearly perfect records and the college athletics business have changed, the character of Northwestern has stayed the same.

    “These guys have heart,” Ruklick says. “I love watching our players. You know that these young people love the game.”


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