Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.
Everyone knows about the 1975-76 season.
If you were there for it, you probably don’t stop talking about it. If you weren’t, it’s been mentioned whenever another seemingly-great team has nearly matched it. Nobody has. Indiana’s 32-0 has (so far!) stood the test of time as the last undefeated season in men’s college basketball.
But what if I told you that could’ve come a season earlier?
Despite winning a national championship and going undefeated, Knight doesn’t claim the ‘76 squad as the best one he coached. No, he said it’s that 1974-75 team. The Hoosiers went 31-0 starting four of the same five that’d go undefeated the next year with the addition of senior forward Steve Green.
Green, Knight’s first recruit in Bloomington, served as a co-captain of the ‘75 team and was its leading scorer with 16.6 points per game.
Indiana’s second leading scorer? None other than Scott May, future No. 2 overall NBA Draft pick and leading scorer of the ‘76 squad with a whopping 23.5 points per game.
Led by Green and May, the Hoosiers laid waste to the Big Ten. Indiana won its conference matchups by an average margin of 22.8 points and rode that dominant offense all the way to an undefeated regular season record.
But there was an incident during their nonconference matchup with the hated Kentucky Wildcats in Assembly Hall.
It didn’t come on the court, No. 3 Indiana cruised to a 98-74 win over No. 15 Kentucky behind 25 points from May. Late in the second half, Knight made his way to the Kentucky bench to have words with an official over a call he didn’t like.
When Knight turned to walk back to his own bench, he allegedly slapped Kentucky head coach Joe Hall in the back of the head.
Hall said it was a malicious strike, while Knight maintained that it was good-natured. And, well, who knows? Either way, it allegedly happened and would come back to (sort of) haunt the Hoosiers later.
The next incident was of the on-court variety and came against, of all teams, Purdue. May broke his left arm during the Hoosiers’ 83-82 win over the rival Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
There were just three games left in the regular season, all of which ended in wins for Indiana (including a 112(!)-89 win over Illinois).
Indiana cruised past the likes of UTEP and Oregon State through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament until they were met by a familiar face during the Elite Eight in Dayton.
Hall’s Wildcats, hungry for revenge.
The resulting matchup would go down as one of the greatest in NCAA Tournament history as the two titans traded blows. Kent Benson went off in May’s stead, scoring 33 points and hauling in 23 rebounds.
Not that May didn’t play. With a cast on his left arm, May managed 2 points across seven minutes.
In the end, Kentucky emerged with a hard-fought 92-90 victory. The Wildcats went onto defeat Syracuse in the Final Four before falling to UCLA 92-85 in the championship, John Wooden’s final game as the Bruins’ head coach.
All of this begs the question... what if May hadn’t broken his arm against Purdue?
Indiana was without a doubt missing its second leading scorer in a tight matchup. Having poured 25 on the Wildcats during their prior matchup, May absolutely could’ve led the Hoosiers past Kentucky in the tournament.
They likely could’ve done the same against Syracuse, advancing to potentially play spoiler to UCLA and Wooden... or not?
Had the Hoosiers won that game, would Wooden still have elected to retire? If Wooden is still around, do the Hoosiers still go undefeated the next season?
Would May, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Kent Benson have returned for the next season if they’d won it all in ‘75?
They did so because they knew how close they came to a championship and were hungry for another banner... would that hunger still be there if they’d already just won one?
May’s left arm going unbroken produces a Pandora's box of outcomes. Advance to face Wooden and lose, and the ‘76 season probably goes the way it actually did. Advance and win? Well, that’s a more difficult question.
The core could stick around and go for another... or feel the pull of the professional ranks.
We’ll never know. One way or another, the undefeated season happened.