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The Spirit of '76
Jack McCallum
March 19, 2001
A quarter century has passed since there has been a champion—the '75-76 Indiana Hoosiers-tough enough to go undefeated
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March 19, 2001

The Spirit Of '76

A quarter century has passed since there has been a champion—the '75-76 Indiana Hoosiers-tough enough to go undefeated

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Bob knight's 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers may have been college basketball's last Boy Scouts. They wore candy-cane-striped warmups on the court, I coats and ties off it, and a cloak of rectitude at all times. They got worked like washerwomen at practice and hollered at like Marine recruits during games but never raised their voices in protest. They passed up shots to get better shots, set rib-rattling picks and played straight-up man-to-man without spending so much as one second in a catch-your-breath zone defense. They never popped off during interviews—indeed, they rarely did interviews—and didn't have highlight shows on which to preen and prance and inform the world that they were No. 1, even though they were. "We didn't have much of a highlight style anyway," says Tom Abernethy, who was a starter at forward.

Here's another thing about them: They didn't lose a game. They are the last NCAA champions to finish with a zero on the right side of their ledger, a distinction that has survived this season as well.

So as we celebrate the silver anniversary of that memorable 32-0 team, a milestone that for those Hoosiers is bittersweet because the coach they still revere is in exile, we also look for reasons why no one since has duplicated Indiana's perfecto. A minor one is that a quarter century ago the mental barrier of going undefeated didn't seem so formidable, the concept that we're better off losing one before the tournament wasn't so en vogue. Between 1964 and '73, four UCLA teams had ended their seasons as unbeaten champions, while two others ( San Francisco in '56 and North Carolina in '57) had gone unblemished before that. When Knight gathered his team in the preseason, he presented an undefeated season as a reasonable objective.

Forget the notion that today's top teams have tougher schedules than Indiana did. The 1975-76 Hoosiers, who went wire to wire as No. 1, opened against defending NCAA champion UCLA; took on a strong Kentucky team at Louisville's Freedom Hall; played four other nonconference teams ( Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and St. John's) that were ranked in the Top 20 at some point; survived 18 games in the customarily tough Big Ten; got a brutal draw in the NCAA tournament (facing No. 6 Alabama, No. 2 Marquette and No. 5 UCLA); and had to beat an outstanding team (No. 9 Michigan) for the third time that season to win it all. They did all that with a big No. 1 target painted on their backs.

As much as memory might suggest that Indiana's season was more coronation than crusade, the Hoosiers were nearly upended several times during the regular season and were in trouble in three tournament games, including the final. In the face of these challenges, Indiana demonstrated character, composure and cojones, largely because of what Knight did to the players during practices. Drills to teach the Hoosiers how to draw a charge and ask-no-quarter scrimmages left them bruised and battered. Abernethy, who would've run barefoot through a snake pit had Knight asked him, recalls looking down at his scabby knees during a brief Christmas break and thinking, 'Wait a minute. I'm a senior, and I'm still going through this?' At one point late in the season some players prevailed upon team leader Quinn Buckner to ask Knight to cut back on the time and intensity of their workouts and Knight complied.

Knight also wasn't afraid to use benchings as motivation. Can you imagine the publicity that not starting the leader of the nation's No. 1 team would generate today? Yet Knight did that to Buckner midway through the season to send a message. He was unhappy not only with Buckner's play but also with the fact that Buckner and co-captain Scott May had moved out of their dorm and into an apartment. "He told us we weren't sleeping right and eating right, and we weren't," says Buckner, who now works as an analyst on ESPN college basketball telecasts. "And you know what? We moved back into the dorm." Guard Bobby Wilkerson was also left on the bench for the start of a game. "I don't really remember why," says Wilkerson, who coaches the boys' team at Northwest High in Indianapolis, "but all you can say is that Coach Knight was an equal opportunist in terms of getting pissed-off at people. I'll tell you part of the reason we were so good: Under Coach Knight, the games seemed like a vacation."

Indiana also had a load of talent. The starters all had NBA careers, as did backup swingman Wayne Radford. There was plenty of talent on the bench too. And Knight, at 35 and already a head coach for 10 seasons, might have been at the peak of his considerable powers.

The Hoosiers were experienced to a degree that few, if any, top teams are these days. Abernethy, Buckner, May and Wilkerson were battle-tested seniors; Kent Benson was a three-year starter as a junior. The 1975-76 season was in fact the continuation of a championship drive that had begun in '74-75. It's axiomatic around Bloomington that the '74-75 Hoosiers, who included sharpshooters Steve Green and John Laskowski, were better than the team that won the title. But a broken left arm suffered by May late in the regular season and a fired-up Kentucky team had combined to give Indiana its only defeat, 92-90, in the '75 Mideast Regional final. (Knight's greatest accomplishment was not going 32-0 in 1975-76; it was going 63-1 over two seasons, including two straight unbeaten Big Ten campaigns.) The loss filled the Hoosiers with motivation. "Because of the disappointment we felt after the Kentucky game," says Buckner, "we gave ourselves up to the idea of winning it all."

Give they did. Though he shone in the tournament, Abernethy did almost nothing but garbage work the entire season. Still, he scored more than Buckner and Wilkerson, both of whom averaged single figures. Imagine a shooting guard being selected today in the first round of the NBA draft with a 7.8-point average, as Wilkerson was after that season. Benson was an All-America center, but in 10 games he had 10 or fewer field goal attempts. May, college basketball's player of the year that season, was the only Hoosier with what amounted to carte blanche on offense, but Knight made sure he wiped his feet on May's back from time to time. "He'd call me in before practice and tell me he was going to go after me to send a message," says May, who owns and operates apartment complexes in Bloomington, "and that's exactly what he did."

The reserves sacrificed, too. As a freshman, Jim Crews had started in the backcourt with Buckner on a team that made the Final Four in Knight's second season after coming to Indiana from Army. As a senior, Crews's backside cut a groove on the bench, but he never complained. "Jimmy epitomized what we were all about," says Buckner. "He's the best teammate I ever had."

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