"We weren't quite sure what this new tournament was all about," Lou Dubino, a Villanova forward that night, said five years before his 2007 death. "We were just thrilled to be playing at the Palestra. That was the tops back then."
The "tops" as far as postseason tournaments went, then and for many years afterward, was the National Invitation Tournament. Organized by New York City sportswriters in 1938, it was the NIT that, initially at least, crowned national champions.
The first NIT at Madison Square Garden proved so successful that a year later, at the urging of Ohio State coach Harold Olsen, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) agreed to sponsor a postseason tournament of its own.
Eight teams from eight geographical regions were chosen for the NCAA's two opening-round doubleheaders - one at the Palestra, the other three nights later in San Francisco's Civic Arena.
Villanova, which had gone 19-3, was universally favored to defeat Brown, even by the Providence school's student-run newspaper.
"Brown doesn't figure to cause Villanova much trouble," a Brown Daily Herald sportswriter noted on game day. "Only the blindest partisan would admit that New England basketball measured up to Middle-Atlantic basketball."
The Palestra was chosen, according to contemporary accounts, because it was the nation's biggest and best campus arena and because of Philadelphia's reputation as a basketball hotbed.
But, for whatever reason, the city's fans reacted coolly. As bad as the opening-night attendance of 3,500 was, it was 500 more than turned out for Villanova-Ohio State on March 18.
"We didn't think much about the small crowds," said Dubino, a native of Linden, N.J. "I mean, who even knew what this NCAA thing was? But we had a pretty good year and were hoping to get invited to the NIT. We had beaten Temple, which won the NIT in 1938. But when it didn't happen and this did, we were happy that we were going to keep playing."
College basketball then was not the acrobatic spectacle it has become. The game was slow, extremely physical, and marked by lousy shooting. Villanova liked to hold the ball, run its weaves, and wait for an open shot, hardly a formula designed to entice fans.
"We just went through these real tight weaves on offense," Dubino explained. "If we even threw a long pass, we'd sit on the bench. We'd win most of our games with 20 to 25 points."
Al Severance's Wildcats scored 17 points in this first half and still led by 10.
Getting a game-high 14 points from 5-foot-9 guard Johnny Krutulis, Villanova pushed its lead to 36-18 with five minutes left and held on. It was for the Wildcats, the Brown newspaper noted, "a fray that required no extension on their part."
The historic doubleheader's nightcap provided a far different display. Ohio State (14-6 at the time) liked to push the ball, and Olsen's big Buckeyes defeated Wake Forest, 64-52, setting Palestra scoring records for an individual (OSU's Dick Bayer had 25 points), a team, and combined teams.
Ohio State had little difficulty with Villanova the following night in a 53-36 win.
"They just ran us into the ground," Dubino recalled. "We weren't used to playing a big, quick team like that. Most of our opponents were real slow."
It was a disappointing outcome for the 3,000 fans, none of whom realized they'd just witnessed the first Final Four game.
The trophy broke
Those initial four finalists never came together. The NCAA's western representatives - Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah State - didn't start play in San Francisco until March 20.
Oregon emerged, and a week later, at Northwestern's Patten Gymnasium in front of 5,500 spectators, the Ducks defeated Ohio State, 46-33. To boost attendance, the pregame attractions featured a contest between two Northwestern intramural squads who used basketball's original rules, including peach baskets.
When the Helms Foundation named its national champion for 1939, it overlooked Oregon and chose NIT champ Long Island University as, a year earlier, it had selected NIT winner Temple.
That snub wasn't the only disappointment for NCAA organizers. The sponsoring NABC lost $2,531 and gladly ceded control of the event to the NCAA. Even its championship trophy took a beating.
In the title game, when Oregon's Bobby Anet crashed into the scorer's table, the trophy fell to the ground and broke. Organizers repaired it. A year later their event got fixed, too.
The 1940 championship was held in Kansas City, where one of the finalists was Kansas. That connection attracted a crowd 9,000 for Indiana's win over the Jayhawks.
The 1940 tourney turned a profit of $9,590, and the NCAA has not lost money on one since.
"We won one game and got a bronze medal," Dubino, who lived to be 93, said of Villanova's role in basketball history. "That was pretty easy when you think about it. No big deal. But seeing what it has become all these years later, we're all thrilled to have played in the first one."
Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz