Kentucky High School Basketball Best - Part 1 (The '20s)

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    by gchs_uk9 is offline Premium Member
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    Basketball was born at the Springfield YMCA in 1891 under the auspices of Dr. James Naismith. Designed as a game to provide exercise for young males during the cold winter months when outside play was almost impossible, a game whose object was to place a leather ball in a suspended basket soon spread across the country. Few places saw it take hold as strongly as the commonwealth of Kentucky.

    Records exist of school teams in Kentucky playing basketball as far back as 1902 and in all likelihood they were even playing before then. No governing body administered any control over interscholastic play in the state and therefore games were typically nothing more than neighboring schools or perhaps neighboring counties playing friendly (or unfriendly) games against one another.

    In 1916, Centre College in Danville hosted eight schools from across the state in an invitational at Boyle-Humphrey Gym. Operated by the Athletic Board of Centre College, the tournament served as more of an open house for potential students than a state championship. And it worked, at least according to a post-tournament article in the Kentucky Advocate.

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    The Kentucky High School Athletic Association was founded in 1917 with close to twenty schools ostensibly to "hold a rein on athletics throughout the State and correct any irregularities, while the conference would have the same power and would stage the big games in every sport" (Courier-Journal, 8 April 1917).

    State tournaments in 1918, 1919, and 1920 were still a hodgepodge of teams from different areas of the state. Seven teams participated in 1918, followed by eight in 1919, and sixteen in 1920. There was no such thing as districts or regions in the sense that exists today, although participants had to progress through one of the various interscholastic associations across the state.

    Beginning in 1921, the state was divided into ten districts with champions advancing to the state tournament at the University of Kentucky. Two western Kentucky districts, hosted in Paducah and Owensboro, saw large numbers of schools compete, with Paducah bettering six others to win the crown on their home floor and Owensboro besting eight neighbors to take their championship. Clark County was the winner of twelve competitors in the Winchester district.

    However, some districts were lightly contested. Manual, Male, and St. Xavier competed for the District 4 title in Louisville. District 7 stretched from Paris to Danville to Somerset and finally to Monticello. District 10 had only one member, Pikeville College Academy, who advanced to the state tournament automatically.

    The next year saw an expansion to eighteen districts, which remained the magic number until the completion of the 1926 season. It is important to add at this point that while today we think of the "district" tournament as the first of three steps to the state tournament, in the early days it was the first of merely two. District winners advanced to the state tournament prior to 1927; there were no regions.

    In 1927, the state began using a tournament method that is the foundation of the same style still used nearly 100 years later. Kentucky was divided into 24 districts. The larger half of schools within the district competed for the Class A championship and the smaller half competed for the Class B championship. Both winners then met for an overall district title, although both were guaranteed a berth in the region tournament the following week.

    Class A and B winners from each district then funneled into six regions, where again the larger half of schools were classified as A and the smaller half B. Depending upon the makeup of the district, a team could easily be Class A in one tournament and Class B in the other. Much like the district tournament, the winners of each class met for the region championship, although both were assured a state tournament appearance, where the same classed method was again used.

    One year later, in 1928, the state would expand slightly to 32 districts and 8 regions, with both region winner and runner-up advancing to the state tournament, the Sweet Sixteen.

    *****

    This article marks the first of ten that will endeavor to rank the ten best programs in the state during each of the ten decades of Kentucky high school basketball. There is some science to the rankings: teams were awarded 1 point for a district championship, 2 points for a region championship, 3 points for each state tournament game won, and 5 points for a state championship.

    There are some provisions included in the formula. First, while technically tournaments won between 1921 and 1926 were known as district tournaments, since the winner advanced to the state tournament, they are credited with a region tournament title and the subsequent two points instead of only one. Second, only teams that won the actual district and/or region final are given the points. If you won the Class B portion of a tournament, but then lost the ultimate final to the Class A winner, only the Class A school received points. It is far from a perfect system, but it is the best method to make a difficult judgment of teams from across the commonwealth.

    Finally, as the game evolved and more teams added basketball, district tournaments became harder to win. As consolidation of small schools into larger county schools began in the 1950s and 1960s, fewer teams made up districts and championships were hoarded up by fewer and fewer schools. Some of the earliest winners are long since faded into memory, while others are independent school districts that have managed to hang on for over a century. It is possible that athletic success, especially in basketball, might have been what developed strong alumni bases and civic pride which has kept those schools open when so many of their small neighbors have gone away.

    But enough sentimentality...on to the rankings!

    *****

    Part 1: The 1920s
    (Since the KHSAA began in 1918, we're including the first two years to make this a 12-year decade)

    1. Lexington (97 points)
    District Championships: 3
    Region Championships: 6
    State Tournament Wins: 19
    State Championships: 5

    Far and away the superior program of the early days, Lexington High School, now known as Henry Clay, dominated all comers on the way to five state championships between 1918-1924. The best of the championship clubs was likely the 1922 version, which routed Frankfort, 55-7, in the state final and proceeded to win the national basketball championship in Chicago the next month.

    2. Manual (71 points)
    District Championships: 1
    Region Championships: 5
    State Tournament Wins: 15
    State Championships: 3

    An early basketball powerhouse in Kentucky, what the Blue Devils of Lexington didn't win, the Crimsons of Manual did. Only one district championship belies the difficulty of regularly competing with St. Xavier and Male. Once Manual made it into the region tournament (again, district prior to 1926, but championship advanced to state), the outlying competition rarely matched up. Nowhere was that more obvious than a 111-7 victory of Boston in 1923.

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    State championships in 1921, 1923, and 1925 provided the rare salve to Lexington's titles. Manual's best days were nearly all early. Aside from a championship in 1931 and three trips to the final day in the 1950s, the Crimsons have rarely been at the top of the state since. Their last state tournament appearance came in 1972.

    3. Ashland (64 points)
    District Championships: 3
    Region Championships: 7
    State Tournament Wins: 14
    State Championships: 1

    Historically the best program in the eastern quarter of the state, Ashland got started winning early and never let up. The Tomcats were runners-up in 1920 and semifinalists in 1926 before breaking through with a memorable 13-11 quadruple overtime victory over Carr Creek in 1928. Ashland would then win the national championship tournament in Chicago.

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    1928 Ashland state and national champions

    4. St. Xavier (33 points)
    District Championships: 1
    Region Championships: 3
    State Tournament Wins: 7
    State Championships: 1

    Tied with Monticello with 33 points, will give the edge to the Tigers who managed to win a state title in the decade. Manual was the bugaboo for St. Xavier, with the Crimsons beating X in the 1921, 1923, and 1925 region tournaments, incidentally all seasons that Manual won state crowns. Were it not for Manual, St. Xavier might be considered the best program of the decade. Their championship came in a 26-13 double-up of Danville in 1926.

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    1926 St. Xavier head coach Brother Constant

    5. Monticello (33 points)
    District Championships: 1
    Region Championships: 4
    State Tournament Wins: 8
    State Championships: 0

    The same thing that eluded Monticello in the 1920s would continue to elude them throughout their history. The Mountaineers (they wouldn't be the Trojans until 1939) made regular appearances in the state tournament during the 1920s but never advanced to a championship game. A four-point loss to Ashland in 1920, two-point loss to Manual in 1921, and one-point loss to Winchester in 1925 show how close the margin between great and champions really is.

    6. Owensboro (32 points)
    District Championships: 3
    Region Championships: 7
    State Tournament Wins: 5
    State Championships: 0

    Owensboro is the most successful basketball program in state history, but statewide success was slow to arrive. (Owensboro won the 1917 "state" tournament, although technically it was just an invitational and isn't counted in state records). Owensboro didn't lose a district or region tournament game until 1928, a win streak of 34 games. It was the state tournament that held back the Red Devils, and in particular it was their offense in the state tournament. Owensboro averaged just 17 points per game in state tournament losses in the 1920s, while averaging 30 points per game in wins.

    7. Winchester (32 points)
    District Championships: 0
    Region Championships: 4
    State Tournament Wins: 8
    State Championships: 0

    Surprisingly, at least based on geography, Winchester participated in districts and regions with eastern Kentucky schools. This was in part due to a lack of competitors in the mountain areas in early Kentucky basketball. It proved advantageous for the Shawnees who played in five state tournaments during the decade. Elimination came with a wallop for Winchester, losing by an average of 29 points in their state tournament losses. The '20s would be the high water mark for the school, as they made their last state tournament appearance in 1926 and would close after the 1960 season.

    8. Heath (25 points)
    District Championships: 1
    Region Championships: 2
    State Tournament Wins: 5
    State Championships: 1

    When you think far western Kentucky basketball you almost immediately think of Paducah Tilghman. However, it was tiny Heath High School in West Paducah that was the earliest power in the Jackson Purchase. Heath made three trips to the state tournament in the decade, culminating in a 21-6 championship victory over Corinth in 1929. The win would be their last ever in the big tournament, with first round losses following in 1931 and 1933. Heath closed in 2013.

    9. Frankfort (25 points)
    District Championships: 0
    Region Championships: 5
    State Tournament Wins: 5
    State Championships: 0

    While close to Lexington, Frankfort didn't compete in the same district or region as Lexington in the early days like they do today. That helped make Frankfort the capitol of the fifth and later seventh district. Opponents such as Shelbyville, Lawrenceburg, and Kavanaugh were no match for the Panthers, who won sixteen consecutive district tournament games after losing their first ever to Georgetown in 1921. Frankfort's best appearance in the state tournament was the aforementioned 55-7 blowout loss to Lexington in the 1922 finals, but five trips to the state tournament in the decade is still impressive.

    10. Holmes (24 points)
    District Championships: 3
    Region Championships: 3
    State Tournament Wins: 5
    State Championships: 0

    Northern Kentucky basketball was slow to start in comparison to much of the rest of the state. Holmes participated in the 1918 state tournament, losing twice in the preliminary round, but there wasn't even a true northern Kentucky region (think Boone/Kenton/Campbell county) until 1923. Highlands advanced to the finals in 1924, but it was Holmes who had more wide-ranging success, winning district titles in 1927, 1928, and 1929 along with region titles in 1926, 1927, and 1928. The Bulldogs best performances in the state were Class A final losses in 1927 and 1928.

    *****

    The Next Best

    11. Pikeville - 23 points
    12. Henderson - 22
    13. Millersburg Military Institute - 19
    14. Somerset - 18
    15. London - 18
    16. Clark County - 17
    17. Carrollton - 15
    18. Paris - 15
    19. Danville - 14
    20. Highlands - 13
    21. Hazard Bible Institute - 13
    Last edited by gchs_uk9; Apr 5, 20 at 10:15 PM.

  2. #2
    sweet16's Avatar
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    Awesome. Thanks.

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    This is wonderful. I look forward to the rest.

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    Tigerpride94's Avatar
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    Outstanding article!

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    Jumper_Dad's Avatar
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    Wasn't Somerset a two-time state runner-up in that time frame? Seems like I thought that for some reason.

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    gchs_uk9's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jumper_Dad View Post
    Wasn't Somerset a two-time state runner-up in that time frame? Seems like I thought that for some reason.
    Yes and no.

    Runners-up in 1916 (Henderson) and 1917 (Owensboro) but those don't count in KHSAA records because that was prior to the founding of the KHSAA and those two tournaments were basically invitationals.

    Runners-up in 1918 and 1919 (both times to Lexington) which do count. Somerset's biggest problem was two local teams they just couldn't consistently beat. Monticello eliminated them in 1921, 1922, 1925, and 1929. Danville put them out in 1924, 1926, 1927, and 1928. Somerset did make the state tournament in 1923, beating Columbia in the first round before losing to Hazard Baptist Institute.

    Lots of success, which is why they are ranked 14th, but not enough to crack the top ten.

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