Bob Knight didn't look like this yet, but his 1975-76 IU team firmly entrenched Knight as a college basketball legend at age 35. (Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport, via Getty Images subscription).
As AJ documented last week, the 1974-75 Hoosiers turned in what at the time was (and remains, probably) the greatest regular season in IU history, followed by the greatest heartbreak, the loss to Kentucky in the regional final. Knowing what we know now, that both of the teams went undefeated in the regular season, it's easy to think of the 1975 and 1976 teams as essentially the same team. But they weren't. Certainly, IU returned many of the key pieces from 1975, but Steve Green, who led IU in scoring (16.5 per game) and field goal percentage (58.6) was gone to graduation, as was John Laskowski, the "Super Sub," who was a key for IU coming off the bench for most of his career. The Hoosiers did begin the season ranked #1, for only the second time in school history and for the first time since 1953-54, but the college basketball world was not anticipating a coronation. IU had 30 first place votes, while defending champion UCLA had 13, Kentucky 3, and Tennessee 1.
It's long been debated among IU fans which squad was better. Knight himself has always said that the 1975 team was better. The consensus seems to be that the 1975 team, with great shooters such as Laz and Green, was more of an offensive force, but that the 1976 team, with "Spiderman" Bobby Wilkerson in the starting lineup in place of Green, was more tenacious defensively. Also, Kent Benson and Wayne Radford, the two underclassmen who contributed most, had another year of experience each. Regardless of the merits of the rosters, it's unquestionable that the 1975 team simply took teams apart. During the 1974-75 regular season, IU played only four games decided by a single digit margin, and only one such game, IU's first-ever win at Mackey Arena, was a single possession game (although the four point win at Kansas was in overtime). In 1975-76, the Hoosiers needed a late Kent Benson bucket to force overtime against Kentucky in Louisville, nearly blew a big home lead against Notre Dame, and played generally competitive games in conference against Ohio State, Purdue (twice), and Michigan (twice). The home game against Michigan is the most legendary brush with disaster. The Hoosiers trailed by four in the final minute, in an era without the shot clock or the three point shot, but a Kent Benson basket at the buzzer forced overtime and allowed the Hoosiers to prevail. In those days, believe it or not, a "controlled shot" was good if it left the player's hands before the buzzer, but a tip-in counted only if it was already in the basket when the buzzer sounded (gosh, what a great rule. Can't believe they got rid of it). The officials ruled that Benson's shot was a "shot," much to the disagreement of Michigan coach Johnny Orr, and the Hoosiers escaped with an overtime win. Nevertheless, there were loads of blowouts, too, beginning with a spanking of defending champion UCLA in St. Louis in the season opener.
IU began NCAA Tournament play in South Bend in the Mideast region. A quick look at the distribution of quality teams in the 32-team field is yet another reminder of how things have changed. While IU had the advantage of playing in front of a partisan crowd in its home state, the Mideast Region was loaded. In addition to #1 IU, the eight-team region included #2 Marquette, #5 North Carolina, and #8 Alabama.. In contrast, the Midwest Region, where Big Ten runner-up Michigan was slotted, included only two top 10 teams, #7 Notre Dame and #10 Missouri. And, as was par for the course, the West Region included only two ranked teams, #4 UNLV and #6 UCLA.
IU handled St. John's comfortably in South Bend, and then headed to Baton Rouge for the regional rounds. In the Sweet 16, IU built a big lead against Alabama, but the Crimson Tide pulled ahead 69-68 with just under four minutes remaining. The Tide never scored again, and the Hoosiers were then set for what would have been a championship game matchup under the current Tournament setup, against #2 Marquette. IU held off a late run by the Warriors to advance to the Final Four for the first time in three years.
The Final Four featured IU, UCLA, Big Ten runner-up Michigan, and undefeated Cinderella Rutgers. In the semifinal, IU spotted UCLA a 7-2 lead, but had things mostly in-hand by halftime and eliminated the Bruins (and new coach Gene Bartow, who had gone to UCLA after one season at Illinois) from their first post-Wooden NCAA Tournament 65-51. Michigan whipped Rutgers in the other semifinal, which set up the first-ever intraconference NCAA final. It also put the Hoosiers in their third rematch in five NCAA Tournament games. IU had played first round opponent St. John's in a holiday tournament at Madison Square Garden, and had played both Final Four opponents during the regular season. Against Michigan, IU lost guard Bobby Wilkerson to a head injury three minutes in, and trailed 35-29 at halftime. IU rallied quickly in the second half, and played what may have been its finest half of either of the two undefeated seasons, stomping Michigan 57-33 in the second half for an 86-68 win and an undefeated NCAA championship.
Here is a youtube video in which you can hear what Coach Knight had to say about the game and witness the elation of Quinn Buckner, Scott May, and others as their dream is realized.
Of course, the overall purpose of this series is to examine how IU teams that have been rated highly in the preseason have fared under the weight of those expectations. It's hard to imagine that any team in the history of college basketball has fared better under weightier expectations. In the history of college basketball, there have been seven undefeated NCAA champions: San Francisco in 1956, North Carolina in 1957, UCLA in 1964, 1967, 1972, and 1973, and IU in 1976. Of those teams, five were rated #1 in the preseason (all except UNC '57 and UCLA '64). Three of those five preseason number one teams (USF '56, UCLA '71 and '72) were defending champions, and UCLA '67 had players who had been members of the 1965 champs. In other words, of all of the undefeated NCAA champions, IU is the only one that a) bore the burden of being the preseason #1; and b) didn't have the benefit of championship experience.
As I mentioned in my post last week, I've been relying heavily on Bob Hammel's ebook "Perfect," which is a compilation of two out-of-print books Hammel published back then. His discussion of the way the games played out as well as the box scores have been invaluable. Some of the historical points he mentions are pretty well known, i.e., there have been only seven NCAA titles won by undefeated teams. One point he made that I didn't realize is that in the NCAA Tournament era, only UCLA (in 1972 and 1973) and IU have had consecutive undefeated regular seasons. Another interesting Hammel tidbit is that not only has there not been another undefeated champion since the 1976 Hoosiers, but there hasn't been a one loss champion, either (thanks, Vanderbilt!). In any event, I highly recommend Hammel's ebook. The 1975 book is a traditional season narrative, with lots of quotes from Mike Krzyzewski and cameos from before-the-were-famous people such as Larry Bird. The 1976 book is a compilation of Hammel's newspaper articles. Both are excellent reads. And it's impossible to know too much about one of the greatest dynasties college basketball has ever seen.