Will 1976 Indiana Hoosiers Always Be CBB's Last Undefeated National Champion?

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Will 1976 Indiana Hoosiers Always Be CBB's Last Undefeated National Champion?
Associated Press
A young coach Bob Knight (left) celebrates a perfect season with Indiana players Scott May (center) and Wayne Radford.

With all due respect to the currently undefeated Wichita State men's basketball team, you are no Indiana.

As in the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the last college basketball team to survive an entire season, NCAA tournament included, without having a single loss inflicted upon them.

I'm old, soon to be 53 years on this earth. But in 1975, when those Hoosiers unofficially began their season with a 94-78 dismantling of the Soviet Union national team in an exhibition that actually meant something, I was young and impressionable.

I also had an older sister who was attending Indiana at the time, so I was fortunate enough to attend a few games at Assembly Hall during not only that magical season but the one that preceded it—and the not-so-magical one that followed it.

I remember one game in particular that I attended during the 1975-76 season because Indiana actually trailed Minnesota at the half, 39-38, in a season when that just wasn't supposed to happen, especially at home.

Indiana came back to win, of course, like they always did that season.

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The Hoosiers were coached by a young Bob Knight, who had just turned 35 years old two weeks before the 1975 season opened. They had it all, and they were a joy to watch. They played the game of basketball as it was meant to be played, then and now: unselfishly, smart and patient on offense; tenacious, relentless and together on defense.

Knight was in the process of perfecting the motion offense, which required post players setting an endless series of screens as the ball was moved around the perimeter and players constantly cut to the basket until one finally broke free for an uncontested layup or wide-open jump shot.

Those Hoosiers had all kinds of star power, but they had critical role players too. Their most dynamic players were forward Scott May and center Kent Benson, but they also had a tough, prototype point guard in Quinn Buckner and a high-flying, athletic off-guard with long arms who could defend anyone one-on-one in Bobby Wilkerson.

Then there were a host of workmanlike players such as forward Tom Abernethy, swingman Wayne Radford and backup guard Jimmy Crews. They fit into the puzzle perfectly because they knew what their jobs were and carried out their assignments nearly flawlessly, rarely trying to do too much.

Make no mistake, though. This was a different era in terms of how coaches used their benches. There were many nights when Knight would play three or more of his starters 38 of the 40 minutes—or even all 40 minutes—in a tight game.

People tend to forget that the 1974-75 Indiana team won its first 31 games, entering the Mideast Regional final against Kentucky as the No. 1 team in the nation, according to the Associated Press poll. With star forward and leading scorer May limited in playing time and what he could do because of a broken arm suffered in the regular-season finale against Purdue, the Hoosiers lost, 92-90.

Associated Press
Center Kent Benson of Indiana grabs a rebound against Minnesota's Mychal Thompson.

According to a USA Today poll compiled in 2002, that Indiana-Kentucky game remained one of the greatest NCAA tournament games ever played.

The following year, I turned 15 the day after Indiana beat Marquette, then coached by the legendary Al McGuire, by the score of 65-56 to win the Mideast Regional championship and avenge the loss to Kentucky. The Hoosiers were on their way to the NCAA title that they would ultimately claim by beating UCLA, 65-51, in the national semifinal and swamping Big Ten rival Michigan, 86-68, in the championship game.

People also tend to forget that the venerable John Wooden did not win the first of what would be a record 10 NCAA championships as coach of UCLA until he was 53.

According to Bob Hammel, the former sports editor of the Bloomington Daily Herald-Telephone newspaper and editor of a book chronicling Indiana's championship season entitled All The Way, Knight was told during one news conference along the way that he would be the youngest coach in history to win the NCAA title if it happened. He also was informed that Wooden had to wait until he was 53 to win his first.

"You know what I'll be doing when I'm 53? I'll have my butt in a boat somewhere with a fishing pole in my hands," responded Knight, according to Hammel in All The Way.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bob Knight, shown here in 1999, stayed at Indiana and in coaching longer than he thought he would.

That comment seems funny now.

When he did eventually turn 53, Knight was still coaching the Hoosiers. His 1992-93 squad went 31-4 and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation in the Associated Press poll, but it lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament.

Knight coached other great teams at Indiana, of course. He won two more national championships: in 1980-81 when the Hoosiers finished 26-9 but got hot at the right time and in 1986-87 when they went 30-4. He always said the team that went 31-1 in 1974-75 but fell short in the narrow regional final loss to Kentucky, was the best he ever had.

But the 32-0 Hoosiers who won the championship are the ones the rest of America remembers most as the best.

There have been only two other teams since then to nearly reach the immortality that comes with going all the way and finishing the season unbeaten: Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, went 29-0 before losing to Michigan State and Magic Johnson in the title game; the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, led by Larry Johnson, went 30-0 before losing to Duke in a national semifinal.

NCAA Division I men's basketball champions with perfect records
Team Season Record
San Francisco 1956 29-0
North Carolina 1957 32-0
UCLA 1964 30-0
UCLA 1967 30-0
UCLA 1972 30-0
UCLA 1973 30-0
Indiana 1976 32-0

Wikipedia

So sorry to say it, Wichita State, but it's just not going to happen for you this year. The Shockers may be perfect for now, but they are not perfect enough as a team to stay that way.

Plus there are more outside distractions (social media, anyone?), more scrutiny from media and fans and a far wider array of quality teams to go through to come out on the other side with the trophy and a totally clean record. The margin for error is so slim that one three-minute stumble during a tournament game and a season, perfect or otherwise, can be quickly terminated.

The Shockers seem far more likely to go the way of the 2004 St. Joseph's team that finished its regular season 27-0 but then inexplicably lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 conference tournament that year. Even if Wichita State wins its Missouri Valley Conference tournament as expected, an early-round exit in the NCAA tournament is very possible.

As good as the Hoosiers were in 1975-76, even they would have been hard-pressed to accomplish the feat in this day and age. That's why it hasn't been done again in going on nearly four decades, and that's why they may be the last college basketball team that will ever do it.

 

Joe Menzer has written one book about college basketball entitled Four Corners, and now writes about it for Bleacher Report and NCAA.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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