The last perfect team: Recalling Indiana’s 1976 title run

NCAA Basketball

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)The Indiana Hoosiers sat quietly inside their locker room on March 22, 1975.

They knew what the first and only loss that season signified – one perfect quest ended while another began.

Minutes after losing 92-90 to archrival Kentucky in the Mideast Region championship, the underclassmen vowed to do whatever it took to finish 1975-76 undefeated. Coach Bob Knight promised to make sure they earned it and they would not let anything – injuries, pressure or distractions – derail them.

It’s how Indiana became America’s last perfect team in men’s college basketball.

”It felt terrible and it it didn’t go away for quite a while,” soft-spoken forward Tom Abernethy said, referring to the loss. ”It wasn’t so much what was said, it was how we felt.”

Many have tried to replicate Indiana’s most enduring feat for 45 years. All have failed.

Larry Bird and Indiana State lost in the 1979 title game. Duke stopped UNLV in 1991. Kentucky took down Wichita State in 2014 and a year later, Wisconsin returned the favor by beating Kentucky.

Two of those runs ended in Indianapolis where Gonzaga (30-0) will play UCLA in the Final Four on Saturday night. The Bulldogs need two more wins to match the Hoosiers’ 32-0 mark and become the eighth undefeated men’s team to win it all.

”I thought there would be some teams that would do it,” said Scott May, a two-time All-American and the 1976 national player of the year. ”It’s hard to do. Every game is important and as you get down to the Elite Eight or the Final Four it gets even harder. But they’ve got an opportunity. I wish them well and it’s right there for them.”

Indiana had two chances, failing in 1974-75 when May tried to play with a broken arm.

A year later, the team was still stacked with talent.

May and Quinn Buckner were elite college football prospects who chose to play for Knight. May, Buckner and guard Bobby Wilkerson were top 11 draft picks in 1976. Kent Benson, the Most Outstanding Player of the ’76 tourney, went No. 1 overall in 1977 and Abernethy and the late Wayne Radford also played in the NBA or ABA.

They were mentally and physically tough, athletic and undeterred, knowing each opponent wanted to ruin the perfect season. The Hoosiers didn’t care.

”I don’t know how we couldn’t have felt pressure with the target that was on our back and playing in front of a lot of fans, just being human,” Abernethy said. ”But once you start thinking about that, you’re probably going to be in trouble.”

Perhaps nothing illustrated the team’s toughness like Benson’s ability to play through pain.

The 6-foot-10, 235-pound center ”mangled” his left wrist early in the conference season. His post-injury practice routine included trainers cutting off his protective plaster cast and constructing a tape cast before working out then putting the plaster cast back on after Benson showered.

He never missed a game.

”I only had the use of my fingers and my thumb,” he said. ”I knew I was an integral part of the team, not the most important part, but an integral part. After the loss against Kentucky, we made a commitment to each other and that was my commitment to the team. I wasn’t going to hurt it any worse, it was going to have to be reconstructed. So I chose to play. Did it hurt at times? Oh yeah, it would bring tears to my eyes sometimes.”

The schedule was brutal. During the first 16 days of the season, Indiana played defending national champion UCLA, No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 14 Kentucky. They won 66-64 at Ohio State and eked out an 80-74 victory in the first of three memorable matchups with Michigan.

The February rematch was the closest call. Indiana was out of sync, and Radford scored 16 points off the bench to keep the Hoosiers close to Michigan before Benson’s buzzer-beating tip-in forced overtime. The Hoosiers won 72-67.

”We really dodged a bullet,” Abernethy said. ”That should have been a loss.”

As the wins stacked up, Knight limited outside influences in ways unthinkable in the social media age. Interviews were kept to a minimum. Outside the classroom or Assembly Hall, players were rarely seen.

”What he did was make sure we were prepared for almost any scenario on the court,” Buckner said. ”Off the court, he did a very good job keeping distractions away. We rarely talked to the media. We did some community relations-oriented things, but at the time we didn’t realize what we were going through.”

As the chatter accelerated, the schedule only got tougher for the final stretch.

After opening the NCAA Tournament with a 20-point win over St. John’s, the Hoosiers faced four straight top 10 teams: No. 6 Alabama, No. 2 Marquette and a rematch with No. 5 UCLA before playing No. 9 Michigan in the title game.

The Wolverines led 35-29 at the half. Then, after everything the Hoosiers had endured over the previous 12 months, the usually fiery Knight gave his team a simple challenge.

”He said something like, `If you want to make history, you’ve got 20 minutes. There’s no adjustments we need to make. It’s just whether you want to go undefeated or get beat by Michigan,”’ May said. ”I think we played our finest half of basketball.”

Maybe the finest in tourney history as Indiana outscored the Wolverines 57-33 for an 86-68 victory and a moment etched in history. In 2013, Knight’s first title team was selected as the All-Time March Madness team, one that capped a two-year run in which the Hoosiers went 63-1, won a record 36 consecutive Big Ten games and became college basketball’s last unbeaten team.

”The goal was to improve upon 1974-75,” Benson said. ”We were 31-1 that year, so the only way to get better was to go undefeated.”

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