Led by All-Americans Tom Marshall and Art Spoelstra, the 1953-54 Hilltoppers were not only one of the most powerful and dominating teams in Western history but nationally they rank as one of the greatest collegiate teams of the early 1950′s. A quick glance at the Hilltopper record book bears this out as their sparkling 29-3 record equates to a winning percentage of .906 and ranks fourth all-time among Hilltopper teams, while the 29 victories is tied for the second highest total in school history. Full of great athletes and running the patented Diddle fastbreak, the ’54 Toppers were naturally one of the most potent offensive teams around, and again the record book clearly shows their dominance as they rank second all-time among Western teams for points scored in a season with 2,730 and their scoring average of 85.3 ppg is the fifth all-time highest in the Hilltopper history. Their 21 consecutive victories also ties the ’54 squad for second place in that category with two other legendary Western teams; the 1947-48 and 1966-67 outfits.
The 1953-54 season marked the culmination of four great careers on the Hill, that of the legendary Tom Marshall, Art Spoelstra, Dan King and Jack Turner. In fact, Western was only the second team in the history of college basketball at the time to have three career 1,000 pt. scorers on the same team….Marshall (1,909), Spoelstra (1,510) and Turner (1,123). The two previous seasons saw injuries and bad breaks cost the Toppers a chance at the elusive NIT national championship that they so desperately craved for Coach Diddle. A knee injury to Marshall in the 1952 NIT led to a 70-69 2nd round defeat at the hands of St. Bonaventure while a flat performance versus powerful Duquesne and their All-Americans Dick Ricketts and Jim Tucker saw 9th-ranked Western fall 69-61 in the ’53 tourney. However, as the 1954 season grew near, excitement was brewing on the Hill and the surrounding area in anticipation of what everyone expected to finally be the Topper’s breakthrough season….the season in which Diddle’s boys would finally bring the national title home to the Hill. It was widely accepted that the ’54 Toppers were expected to be the greatest Western team in Diddle’s 33 years as coach….a huge statement that carried enormous expectations.
Bolstering an already dominating line-up was the return of Jack Turner to the Hill. Turner, a 6’4″ sharpshooting guard who had starred on the 1950 and 1951 Topper squads, had completed a two year stint in the Army before returning to Western to finish out his eligibility in ’53-54. Turner would round out a starting five which featured two high scoring All-Americans in 6′ 4″ forward Tom Marshall and 6′ 9″ center Art Spoelstra. The two athletes had taken different paths to collegiate stardom however. Coming out of Mt. Juliet High School (TN), Marshall had become a schoolboy legend in the Nashville area with his games regularly drawing hundreds of fans who were there to simply see “Atomic Tom” in action. Heavily recruited by colleges from near and far Marshall eventually chose Western over Vandy, uk and a host of others after he and his family fell in love with Coach Diddle and the Hill. Spoelstra meanwhile, arrived from Grand Rapids, Michigan as a very raw and thin athlete who possessed limited ability at the beginning of his career on the Hill. However, thanks to the very capable and dedicated instruction of Coach Diddle and Coach Ted Hornback, Spoelstra became another in a long line of outstanding players developed to excellence by the Hilltopper coaching duo. Forest “Frosty” Able, a high scoring 6′ 3″ guard from Fairdale, KY; Lynn Cole, a 6’3″ forward from Paducah; and Dan King, a 6’6″ rugged red-headed rebounding machine from Paris, Tenn., whom legendary Oklahoma coach Hank Iba called the best rebounder he had ever witnessed, rounded out the regulars for the ’54 squad.
Once the games got underway the lofty expectations of the fans proved to be justified and one of the highlights of the early season happened during a matchup with OVC rival Morehead on Dec. 12, 1953 Heading into the game the Toppers were 5-0 and ranked #11 nationally, but the game itself , a 98-77 blowout win for Western, wasn’t the big story. Instead, it was the amazing performance by center Art Spoelstra that made headlines. Shooting a remarkable 22 of 33 from the field and 8 of 12 from the free throw line, the lanky pivot man poured in 52 pts., which not only set a Western record that stood for another 12 years before being broken by Clem Haskins’ 55 pt. outburst in 1965, but it was also the highest point total ever accumulated by a major college player in the state of Kentucky at the time.
Three days after the Morehead game the Toppers dispatched of Cincinnati (74-71) before leaving on their annual trip to the Northeast. In Madison Square Garden Diddle’s boys crushed St. Francis (N.Y.) ( 78-55) before traveling onto Buffalo where they exacted a small measure of revenge against St. Bonaventure, the team that had knocked Western out of the 1952 NIT. The (82-76) victory over the Bonnies put the Toppers at 9-0 on the season and three days later the team rose to #6 nationally in the AP poll. However, the streak was just beginning.
A win over OVC foe Eastern Kentucky preceded a December 30 showdown with another fierce longtime foe…the Louisville Cardinals coached by former Hilltopper player Peck Hickman, who had played for Diddle in the 1930′s. And like the Morehead game earlier in the month, another Western record was established. This time it was Tom Marshall shattering the single game rebounding mark yanking down 29 boards, a record which still stands almost 50 years later. For good measure Marshall poured in 23 pts. while Art Spoelstra led the way in scoring with 29 pts. as the Toppers continued to roll defeating the Cardinals (89-71).
December had rolled on without a loss and January would be no different as Western conintued to dispatch of its opponents and move up in the national polls. Highlights along the way included wins over arch-rival Murray, a (122-78) blowout of Eastern Ky., a three overtime (79-75) victory at powerful Dayton and a (94-82) win over always tough Bowling Green St. By the time February rolled around the Toppers were 21-0 and sporting national rankings of #2 UPI and #4 AP. To reach 22-0 Western would need to dispatch of EKU for the third time that season, this time in Richmond. Winning on the road in the OVC in those days was a very difficult task and sure enough the team that the Toppers had defeated by 44 pts. only a few weeks earlier turned around and knocked Western from the ranks of the undefeated handing the Hilltoppers a (63-54) defeat in what would prove to be their only regular season setback of the 1953-54 campaign. Apparently the loss left Marshall and company with a bad taste in their mouth, as no team came closer than 14 pts. to the Toppers for the remaining of the season. Included in that final seven game stretch was a fourth matchup with Eastern, and for the third time in four tries Western sent the Maroons packing with an (85-69) whipping.
With the regular season complete Diddle and the 29-3 Hilltoppers set their sights on the big prize…..the NIT tournament at Madison Square Garden. And up first in the opening round was a familiar opponent…Bowling Green St. With the fastbreak clicking on all cylinders the Toppers ran the boys from Ohio off the court with an easy (95-81) victory. Most experts were by then picking the hard charging Hilltoppers to take home the championship but a powerful Holy Cross team was waiting in the semi-finals and like Western, the Crusaders was led by two All-American players….Togo Palazzi and future Celtic great Tommy Heinsohn.
Midway through the first half it appeared that the game would turn into another rout for the Toppers as their fastbreak was on the verge of running Holy Cross out of the gym. However at that point in that game Western received a crushing blow that would ultimately prove to be their undoing. While holding a 32-21 lead Jack Turner, the team’s floor leader and a 13 ppg scorer, fell to the floor in pain after severely spraining his ankle. From that point on the momentum shifted in favor of the Crusaders and by half-time the Topper’s 11 pt. lead had been dwindled down to two. The second half saw two things occur….Holy Cross dictated the pace of the game down into a slow, deliberate style of play that frustrated the “run and gun” Hilltoppers, and secondly, Togo Palazzi caught fire for the Crusaders and finished with a game-high 32 pts. Still, the game remained close and in doubt up until the end but the loss of Turner proved to be too much for Western to overcome and as as result the Topper’s bid to bring home the NIT championship once again fell short as eventual champion Holy Cross defeated the Topppers (75-69). The next night in the consolation game a still-dejected Western team fell to Niagara (71-65).
Tom Marshall ended his playing career on the Hill by being selected to the NIT All-Tournament team but the injury to Turner and the frustration at once again coming so close to the national title was hard for the Toppers to accept. Coach Diddle believed that with Turner playing Western would not have had a close call en route to the title, stating, “We could have beat any team in the field by ten points with Jack in there.” And almost fifty years later Tom Marshall also still has the same belief, “I think we were up 10 or 12 points or so in the second quarter, blowing them out, and that’s when Turner got hurt and we just didn’t have anyone that could take his place. Then they went on and won the tournament. I think they beat Duquesne the following night in the finals. That was a big, big disappointment because I thought sure we going to win it that year.”
Despite the disappointment and frustration with the way the season ended it’s hard to not be impressed with the accomplishments and accolades of the ’54 Toppers. Finishing with a 29-3 final record and achieving a ranking as high as #2 in the nation demonstrated what an outstanding team that Coach Diddle and Hornback assembled, but there were numerous individual honors as well. Tom Marshall finished seventh in the nation in scoring with 25.9 ppg. and 18th in rebounding right at 15 rpg, while Art Spoelstra finished fourth nationally in FG percentage at 54.3%. Marshall, Spoelstra, Jack Turner and Lynn Cole were all named to the All-OVC team. National recognition was also bestowed upon the Toppers as Tom Marshall was selected second-team All-American by AP, UPI and Look Magazine. And someone else who took notice of the success and talent of the ’54 Toppers was the NBA, as four Hilltopper seniors were drafted into the league…Marshall was the top choice of the Rochester Royals, who also drafted teammate Art Spoelstra, Jack Turner was selected by the New York Knicks and Dan King went to the Baltimore Bullets.
Tom Marshall and Art Spoelstra have both been elected into the WKU Athletics Hall of Fame and in February 2000, Marshall became one of only five WKU basketball athletes to have their jersey retired and hung from the rafters of E.A. Diddle Arena. Today the members of the ’54 team are geographically spread out with Tom Marshall residing in South Florida, Spoelstra in Evansville, Ind., Dan King in Louisville, Ky., Lynn Cole in Texas, and Kay Greer in Northern California.
Many teams have come and gone in the forty-eight years since the 1954 Toppers last walked the Hill but only a handful deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as that outstanding group of athletes. Bad breaks may have cost them national titles but for the lucky fans that were able to witness the team in action the memories are sure to last a lifetime.