In 1940, the NCAA was hosting its second ever “World Series of Basketball” after the Oregon Ducks won the first championship in 1939. The first tournament was hardly considered a success however, as there was relatively little interest and the venture ended up losing a then-princely-sum of $2500. Undeterred, Phog Allen, who was instrumental in helping to create the tournament to begin with, convinced the NCAA to hold the championship in Kansas City and even promised to help with its marketing.
The 1940 Tournament of Champions only consisted of eight teams – each of them conference champions. The tournament was only held in two locations, with the East Regional held at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and the West Regional held at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The final four (it didn’t become The Final Four until after being called that by a sportswriter in 1975) teams then played for the championship in Municipal Auditorium.
The 1939-1940 Jayhawks were a good team and even entered the tournament as the #2 seed with a 17-5 record, but they were prone to long scoring droughts. KU squeaked by USC, 43-42 in the semi-finals to face #1 Indiana in the championship game, who had dispatched Duquesne 39-30 in their match-up. Despite a Kansas-heavy crowd of 10,000 at Municipal Auditorium, KU’s offensive challenges caught up with them and the Jayhawks lost to Branch McCracken’s Big 10 Hoosiers, 60-42.
Although the loss was disappointing to the Kansas team and its faithful, it showed the NCAA that the tournament was a viable way to make money. After not only losing money in 1939 but having discussions about cancelling future tournaments due to the anemic response, the 1940 championship ended up making the NCAA a profit of over $10,000 and planting the seeds for the financial juggernaut it would become.
All thanks to Phog Allen and his 1940 Jayhawks playing in their first NCAA tournament and making the first of KU’s 15 (and counting) Final Fours.