1976 Introduction

1976 Introduction

By Bob Hammel

March 10, 2006

From the March 30, 1976 Bloomington Daily Herald – Telephone

There is no evidence that each time the point is reached in a season when the last undefeated men’s college basketball team in America loses for the first time, players on the 1975-76 Indiana team celebrate – in the manner of the only perfect-record Super Bowl champions, the 1973 Miami Dolphin, when the last perfect-record NFL team falls.

Maybe the ’76 Hoosiers don’t do it is because, unlike the Dolphins, they weren’t the only team ever to do it.

Just, 30 years later, the last one.

Approach that subject carefully, within earshot of those Hoosier players or their coach, Bob Knight.

Don’t even think of saying or suggesting – as have some commentators with national stature – that it won’t likely ever be done again because it’s so much tougher now.

It wasn’t easy then.

But, as Quinn Buckner, the captain of that team and its frequent spokesman, said just this spring: “People are still trying to figure out a way to beat that team.”

No one did it in 1975-76. No one yet has figured out a way to take away its stature as major college basketball’s Last Unbeaten Champion.

Wire to wire as No. 1

Coach Knight outlines IU’s attack vs. St. John’s, March 13, 1976.

Easier then?

Those Hoosiers started the season with the No. 1 bullseye on their back, and kept it there through to championship night.

They played a pre-conference schedule that took them against No. 2-ranked (and defending national champion) UCLA on a neutral court for openers, then matched them with Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville, unbeaten St. John’s before a full house in Madison Square Garden, and Notre Dame.

Then they went against the last opponents not in any way awed: their Big Ten brethren, for 18 games, round-robin home and road.

They did in 1975-76 what only one other team in the Big Ten’s intensely competitive history has ever done. They went into each of those rivals’ home arenas, and always before the biggest and loudest turnout of the year there, won.

The only other team to do that, before or since: the 1974-75 Hoosiers, whose Shermanesque sweep through those arenas only made it more difficult for a repeat. Every player on the 1975-76 team was a part of that 1974-75 sweep.

All year as they followed up on that achievement they kept hearing versions of “They’re good, very good, but not as good as last year.” Translation: they’re beatable this time.

But no one did.

After disappointment, a goal met

Scott May (42) shoots while Kent Benson (54) readies for a rebound during IU’s home game vs. Purdue, January 18, 1976.

The Hoosiers’ best player was 6-7 senior forward Scott May, the 1976 College Player of the Year.

They might have been – probably would have been – going for a second straight championship in ’76 if May, a consensus All-American that year, too, hadn’t broken his arm in the last three weeks of the regular season in 1974-75. The Hoosiers had enough to finish a 29-0 regular season that year and won their first two tournament games, but Kentucky – overwhelmed 98-74 in December at Assembly Hall – knocked them off in the Mideast Regional final at Dayton, 92-90.

And that is why, with the championship-game nets down at Philadelphia a year later, Knight called it all “a two-year quest.”

Abernethy’s assets mirrored team’s

May and Buckner were kingpins in quite a lineup.

Junior center Kent Benson, the only non-senior starter, was first-team All-America – winner of the Outstanding Player Award at Philadelphia.

Bobby Wilkerson was a 6-7 guard who jumped against centers opening the game. Sometime during the season – sometime during some games – Wilkerson played man-to-man against guards, forwards and centers. He and Buckner combined to form what still is Knight’s choice as the best defensive guard set ever in college basketball, repeatedly taking teams out of their offense before they could get it started.

The fifth 1975 starter had been high-scoring forward Steve Green, two times All-Big Ten. Knight didn’t try to replace Green’s scoring in giving the starting assignment to 6-7 senior Tom Abernethy, whose strengths included defensive, rebounding, passing, and an ability to hit the shots that came to him.

Those were among the strengths that eventually made this team rank with the all-time best: defense, passing, and a super-efficient offense not subject to hot or cold nights. Not that they didn’t have a couple of cold ones. But those they weathered and went on, spotless.

No magic in second chance

Few teams ever have debuted so spectacularly.

They previewed everything by taking on the reigning Olympic champions from the Soviet Union and ripped the Soviets at packed Market Square Arena, 94-78.

Some preview. May showed what the ’75 tournament Hoosiers had missed and how healthy and ready he was now with a 34-point performance, and 13-for-15 shooting.

Bobby Wilkerson (20) looks for opportunity during IU vs. Purdue, January 18, 1976.

The Soviets’ previous tour loss was at Marquette. “If we had played (that game) the way we played here, we would have won,” coach Vladimir Kondrashin said through an interpreter. He called Indiana “20 points better” than Marquette.

That was true two weeks later in an 84-64 win over UCLA, too – one of the first made-for-TV early-season games. May had 33 in that one (15-for-24) as the Hoosiers led 36-28 at halftime and roared away, the margin 26 at one time.

In the Washington Post, Paul Attner wrote that a rematch would find the Bruins better prepared because “it is always easier to play Indiana the second time around. Kentucky, which lost to Indiana by 24 in December last season, proved that in the NCAA tournament.”

Twelve teams ultimately had that opportunity in 1975-76. One was UCLA. And, second time around, nothing changed.

But even in the spectacular aftermath of that first night, the disbelievers were forming.

‘Best half-court defense I’ve ever seen’

The Hoosiers got every No. 1 vote in the first week’s wire-service polls. And, in a separate international poll previewing the upcoming Montreal Olympics, Indiana also was No. 1 – No. 1 among all amateur basketball teams in the world – with the Soviet Union second.

No IU basketball team ever has played an official season opener to match the one at neutral St. Louis late on a Saturday night, Nov. 29, 1975: No. 1 IU vs. reigning NCAA champion UCLA, retooled under new coach Gene Bartow but hardly rebuilding, in the building where IU’s season had ended and UCLA with John Wooden and Bill Walton had moved on to another championship with a semifinal 70-59 escape from Indiana in the 1973 NCAA Final Four.

It was the first made-for-national-TV season opener, starting at about 11 p.m. in the East to make it prime viewing time (8) in Los Angeles.

And it was no match. Indiana breezed, 84-64, the halftime lead 36-28 on the way to a 72-46 crest. Marquette assistant Hank Raymonds called it “the best half-court defense I’ve ever seen a team play, college or pro. They never let UCLA even start its offense.”

If any doubts were left about either May’s value or his health, he eliminated them with a 15-for-24, 33-point game. He did it in a match-up with 6-7 UCLA All-American Marques Johnson, who scored 18 points, and 6-11 Richard Washington (28 points) also was in that front court. “I think you saw three All-America forwards out there tonight,” Bartow said.

He had one other opinion: “They’ve got four guys out there who will be first-round pro draft choices.” And history proved him right: May No. 2, Buckner 9, and Wilkerson 11 in the 1976 draft, and Benson No. 1 the next year.

Benson to the rescue (No. 1)

Next up for the Hoosiers was Florida State, NCAA runnerup to UCLA in 1972. Hugh Durham coached the Seminoles then and knew what he was sending his team against at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis this time. “They beat Russia to prove they’re the best in the world, and UCLA to prove they’re the best in the United States,” dry-wit Durham said. “Now I’d like to see them prove they’re human and have a bad game.”

They didn’t. It was 47-20 at halftime, peaking at 79-41 on the way to an 83-59 final – with 24 points by May, 22 by Benson, and 15 points with 6 assists for Buckner. Durham didn’t lose his wit. “I’m glad this isn’t like baseball,” he said. “I’d hate to play these guys in a three-game homestand.”

It was too good a season start for normal improvement to follow. The Hoosiers sputtered some in beating All-American Adrian Dantley and Notre Dame, 63-60, in their Assembly Hall – after which Knight said, “My team needs an enema.”

Then came their biggest December scare, a 77-68 overtime escape over rebuilding Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville. It was the first of two overtimes for those Hoosiers, each time Indiana catching up to tie in the final regulation seconds, each time on a rebound basket by Benson.

Some month for Hoosiers

Kent Benson (54) pulls down a rebound during IU vs. Minnesota, February 20, 1976.

Tournament championships came on blowout victories over Georgia, 93-56, and a good Virginia Tech team, 101-74 (Indiana Classic at IU) and Columbia, 106-63, Manhattan, 97-61, and unbeaten St. John’s, 76-69 (Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden). Virginia Tech, an NCAA qualifier that year, was down 41-15 a long way before halftime and already had gone through three timeouts. St. John’s, before a college-record Garden crowd of 19,694, stayed with the Hoosiers through 65-65 before May (29 points) led a closing pull-away.

As the tournament MVP, May joined a royal list of previous winners: Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Lew Alcindor and Tom Gola, for starters.

In 31 days, the Hoosiers had worn that No. 1 bullseye to nine straight victories. And it was Big Ten time.

‘An unprecedented frenzy’

Their league opener was classic Big Ten: on the road, against an Ohio State team that was to finish last in the league, in the last year of Knight vs. his college coach, Fred Taylor. The outmanned Buckeyes carried their upset try to the final second before losing, 66-64 – even after guard Jud Wood’s mid-court steal with just over a minute left led to a lay-up that rolled out and broke Buckeye hearts.

The first big conference test was a week later at Ann Arbor, where swift Rickey Green had come in from Vincennes Junior College to make Johnny Orr’s veteran Wolverines in the first match-up of teams that almost three months later would play in the national championship game. It was some setting at Ann Arbor that night. Writer Dave Matthews’ account in the Lansing State Journal described it:

“Michigan never has seen anything like it. An upset-crazed Crisler Arena record throng of 14,063 stood and screamed as its beloved band of Wolverines was introduced. The foe that had aroused Michigan’s backers to such an unprecedented frenzy, top-ranked Indiana, stood quietly, waiting for the noise to subside and the action to begin. It was a beautiful scene, portending memorable moments to come. And it didn’t take long at all … but it was Indiana, not Michigan, that rose to the occasion.”

Green introduced himself to the Hoosiers with a break-away layup on the opening tip. Indiana’s counter-punch was a Benson-led burst to a 16-2 lead. At halftime, it was 36-33 and, even with Benson’s 16-for-18, 33-point game, the game stayed close through an 80-74 finish. Indiana shot .596, shocking Orr. “I didn’t think they were a particularly good shooting team, until today,” he said.

Coach Knight walks Quinn Buckner over to the bench during IU vs. St. John’s, March 13, 1976.

A young Purdue team, playing “harder and better than we did,” finally lost 71-67 at Assembly Hall.

Five nights later at Minneapolis, against Marquette conqueror Minnesota, halftime came with Indiana down, 45-40 – the first time in 50 games that had happened. They cured that by scoring the first eight times they had the ball the second half, 8-for-8 shooting with three steals, to surge ahead 56-49, and go on to an 85-76 win – all five starters in double figures, the surprise Abernethy with 22.

A 62-point first half keyed a 114-61 Assembly Hall victory over Wisconsin, the Hoosiers’ 28th straight Big Ten victory to break a league record held for 15 years by the Ohio State team that included Knight. May, who scored 30 points, couldn’t believe a post-game question about his reaction to the record. “It’s halfway through the season, man,” he said. “We can’t be thinking about records.”

A legend had no concerns

Seven days later, in a national TV game at Assembly Hall, starters Buckner, Wilkerson and Abernethy combined to go 2-for-22, May was a sub-par 11-for-30, and the Hoosiers – down 39-29 at halftime and 55-47 with 9:35 to go, in the last 22 seconds needed Buckner’s one field goal, a missed one-and-one by Michigan star Steve Grote (4-for-4 at the line previously), and Benson’s buzzer-beating rebound basket to get to overtime. And there, with sophomore Wayne Radford off the bench to star with a 6-for-7, career-best 16-point game, the Hoosiers opened up a 72-67 victory. “I wouldn’t say one guy beat us,” Orr said of Radford’s surprise day. “May (27 points) and Benson (21, plus 15 rebounds) helped a little.”

At IU, Illinois became the third team to lead the Hoosiers at halftime (27-26) before a 58-48 Indiana victory. And at Mackey Arena, Purdue became the fourth (39-35), before May’s 20 last-half points pulled Indiana through, 74-71. The game’s showpiece play was a two-man break to a lay-up, May back and forth with Wilkerson without the ball hitting the floor. Still, it was 72-71 when May, with 0:02 to play, hit two clinching free throws.

Back home, the puzzling new pattern held: for the fifth time – in eight games, and in 57 – Indiana trailed at the half (to Minnesota again, 39-38), but won, 76-64. The Hoosiers got a break: Minnesota’s 6-2 forward, future NBA star Ray Williams, who had 34 points in the first game and 18 in this one, hurt an ankle late in the first half and played injured after that.

A first-time Knight guest at Assembly Hall, coaching legend Clair Bee, was the least frightened by the Hoosiers’ halftime plight. “I never tried to be ahead at the half,” said the man with college basketball’s all-time highest winning percentage. “Then I knew they’d listen.” And in this game? “I never did have any question about which was the better team.”

No. 1 vs. No. 2 in regional: for last time

Quinn Buckner (21) protects the ball while Tom Abernethy (33) comes over to help during IU vs. Ohio State, March 5, 1976.

The regular-season scares were over. The Hoosiers finished their second straight 18-0 romp around the league with one-sided victories over Iowa, Wisconsin (a career-best 41 points for May, at Madison), Northwestern and Ohio State.

And then it was tournament time, the Hoosiers’ path to their championship the sternest rebuttal of all to any “easier-then” suggestions that might come up today, 30 years later.

Because some things trump opinion. It’s not a guess, it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact that no unbeaten team now could face the caliber of tournament opponents the Hoosiers did – five straight teams that at one time during the season were ranked in the Top 10, five that would have been no worse than No. 4 seeds today.

There were no seeds then (the first NCAA seedings were in 1979). No unbeaten team could face any team stronger than a No. 8 seed as first up in its last-five list. And no No. 1-ranked unbeaten team could play No. 2 (Marquette, in ’76 Indiana’s case) before even getting to the Final Four. Because the No. 1 Hoosiers and No. 2 Warriors collided in the Mid-East Regional final, the decision to begin seeding essentially was made – so it would never happen again.

Unscathed after a scathing schedule

Those five tournament victories were 90-70 over St. John’s, 74-69 over Alabama, 65-56 over Marquette, 64-51 over UCLA, and 86-68 over Michigan. Each of those teams would have been seeded at least No. 5 this year – Marquette a sure No. 1, Alabama and UCLA No. 2s, Michigan No. 3, and St. John’s No. 4 or 5.

Those five victories were among 11 the 32-0 Hoosiers claimed over teams that had been in the Top 10 that year. Against teams ranked in the Top 20 at some point, they were 17-0.

There might have been more of those Top 20 teams if Indiana for two years hadn’t so dominated its league opponents – in baseball terms, they won the league championship by an unprecedented six games in 1975 and by four games in ’76. Naturally, the other nine had their credibility (i.e., poll standing) bruised.

That’s why the Michigan team they played in the championship game barely was ranked in the season-ending Top 10 – No. 9. But the Wolverines, who lost in triple-overtime to eventual-champion UCLA in the 1975 tournament, which got to the 1976 final game by whipping No. 7 Notre Dame, Big Eight champion Missouri, and Rutgers, the only other undefeated team to make that tournament, rather easily in the Final Four semifinals, 86-70. The season-ending polls had split on Rutgers, No. 3 in one and 4 in the other.

Dominant in the year’s best league

Tom Abernethy (33) passes off after a rebound during IU’s NCAA tournament win vs. St. John’s, March 13, 1976.

Something else: No. 2-ranked Marquette’s only regular-season loss had come at Minnesota. And UCLA, after being trounced in its opener by Indiana at St. Louis, went 25-1 thereafter, before losing its NCAA semifinal game to the Hoosiers, 65-51.

There was no doubting the Big Ten’s superior credentials in 1975-76.

And, therefore, unbeaten Indiana’s.