The team, led by Oscar Robertson, was coming off consecutive third-place finishes in the NCAA Tournament.
But he was gone when first-year head coach Ed Jucker took over. Then the Bearcats started the season 5-3.
“It was quite an adjustment,” guard Tony Yates recalled in 2011. “We struggled early on with the new system. But there was a magical moment when it clicked for us after about eight games.”
“It affected us to hear boos coming out of the stands while we were trying to run this new plan,” guard Carl Bouldin said in 2011. Fans kept taunting the coach with chants of “Let ’em run!”
Cincinnati — “the All-American team with no All-Americans,” Jucker said — didn’t lose another game that season. The Bearcats won their fourth consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championship and first NCAA championship.
And the best part was beating rival Ohio State, which was led by John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Bobby Knight, in the championship game on March 25, 1961.
“No one gave us a chance in that game,” Bouldin said in 2012. “I think Ohio State was tight. They were favored. We had nothing to lose.”
The Bearcats dispatched Texas Tech and Kansas State to reach their third consecutive Final Four. Bouldin’s 21 points led Cincinnati to an 82-67 victory against Utah in the Final Four semifinals setting up a meeting with undefeated Ohio State in the championship game.
Cincinnati led by as many as four points in the first half against the favored Buckeyes, but 18 first-half points by Lucas gave Ohio State a 39-38 halftime lead.
Trailing 59-55 late in the second half, the Bearcats reclaimed the lead with a six-point run. After Knight’s layup tied the game at 61, both teams missed opportunities to win, sending the game into overtime.
In overtime, the Bearcats took the lead on a pair of Paul Hogue free throws and never looked back, winning 70-65.
The teams met again for the NCAA championship in 1962, both teams playing their best. Cincinnati entered with a 27-2 record and a lineup that featured four black starters.
Ohio State was 26-1, the only blemish a 1-point loss to Wisconsin.
Lucas, who injured his knee in a semifinal victory against Wake Forest, hit a free throw to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 37-30 early in the second. But that was as close as Ohio State got.
The Bearcats won 71-59 for their second consecutive title, the sports moments judged the greatest in Cincinnati history.
Hogue, the tournament MVP, led the Bearcats with 22 points and 19 rebounds and Tom Thacker scored 21 points. Hogue, an All-American, paced Cincinnati’s 72-70 victory against John Wooden and UCLA in the semifinals with a career-high 36 points and 19 rebounds.
Hogue and Thacker were selected first-team all-tournament while Yates and was a second-team selection.
“It amazes me that people still come up to us and talk about those games,” Yates said. “That was a special time in the city and the region. Parents have passed the stories onto children and grandchildren. Those special moments still hang on.”
Above: Cincinnati’s 1961 NCAA men’s basketball champions. (Courtesy University of Cincinnati Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Cincinnati and Cleveland State
• Tuesday: Coastal Carolina
• Wednesday: Colgate and Colorado College
• Thursday: Columbia and Connecticut
• Friday: Cornell and Clarkson