In the city of the Liberty Bell, Indiana repaired the hairline crack in its image, chucked the yoke of misfortune that hung from its neck for a year and realized its destiny. The Hoosiers of Bobby Knight won the NCAA championship in Philadelphia last Monday night. Freedom, sweet freedom. This team finally reached the end of its rainbow, without getting hit by lightning.
Indiana did it with a flourish as conspicuous as John Hancock's signature, using a harrying defense and a brilliant offense to wear down a gallant Michigan team 86-68 in the Spectrum. And they accomplished it without Bobby Wilkerson, their lanky starting guard, who was knocked senseless in the opening minutes and taken to a hospital while visions of last year's disaster rolled like a nightmare through the Indiana fans in the crowd. But this time there would be no such outcome. Indiana would not lose the way it did to Kentucky in the finals of the 1975 Mideast Regional, the only blot on its record in two seasons. The Hoosiers turned the tide of the game in the second half, denying Michigan the open space it needed, and ultimately reduced their opponents to sheep in Wolverines' clothing.
It was vindication for Knight, a resolute and fanatical man who came out of the small town of Orrville, Ohio and became, at 35, one of the youngest coaches ever to win the NCAA crown, a person loved by many, hated by a few and understood by almost no one. "This was a two-year quest," said Knight after the game. Even in triumph he remained doomed to the treadmill. Once is not enough for the driven people. "I'm not paid to relax," he said. "I'll be on the train tomorrow morning. Recruiting."
Indiana won because of the big things, such as Scott May's 26 points and Kent Benson's 25, which along with his inside domination that wrecked Michigan won the massive center the Most Valuable Player award. But also because of the little things—all of the long and late practices spent endlessly repeating the dull but demanding essentials until there is not the slightest ripple of eccentricity, only the hum of polished machinery. When Knight saw Wilkerson sprawled on the floor just under three minutes into the game, his first thought was, "What's my best replacement?"
The best replacement turned out to be Jim Wisman, the same player whose jersey Knight once almost tore off in a game—ironically enough, against Michigan during the regular season. This time Wisman delighted his coach. He directed the offense perfectly, following instructions to get the ball inside to the big men as Michigan, bruised by foul trouble, tried to play loose. Despite that effort, Center Phil Hubbard and defensive specialist Wayman Britt fouled out of the game, and with their exits Michigan crumbled.
Until then the Wolverines, though twice beaten by Indiana during the Big Ten schedule, clawed and scratched and harried the Hoosiers, forcing them into uncommon errors. Led by Guard Rickey Green, Michigan took a 35-29 lead to the dressing room at halftime, secure in the knowledge that it had shot 61.5% and outrebounded Indiana.
Earlier in the day the Boston Celtics' John Havlicek, a teammate of Knight's on Ohio State's 1960 NCAA champions, had addressed the Indiana players. Now at halftime it was the coach's turn and whatever he said had the required effect. Five minutes into the second half the score was tied and Michigan's tongues were starting to grow cotton. And when Indiana went up 69-59 with five minutes left, it was all over. The Hoosiers do not let leads like that get away.
It was an impressive victory, and one to be savored. "You don't know what we go through in practice," said Indiana freshman reserve Rich Valavicius. "We work so hard. The coach is the boss here."
Throughout the week Knight exhibited the total control he has of his team. During a workout on Friday a hand signal was all he needed to put an end to some frivolous byplay. And after the Michigan game he still was monitoring his players' answers to reporters' questions. And they bent to his pressure like pets looking for a caress. "He's made me a better person," said senior Quinn Buckner. May, also a senior, said, "The first time we met I saw in his eyes that this guy is all right." And Benson said, "Without him, we'd never be here."
Indiana and Michigan had reached the finals on Saturday afternoon with surprising ease, knocking off UCLA and Rutgers by 14 and 16 points respectively in a couple of yawners. In both cases the margin, at least, was surprising. In UCLA, Indiana faced not only the defending champion but an opponent with a score to settle—20 points worth of score. Humiliated 84-64 by the Hoosiers in the opening game of the season, their first under new Coach Gene Bartow, the Bruins had regrouped, won the Pac Eight and moved easily through the West Regional. Now they came to Philadelphia in no mood for brotherly love. Starting Guard Ray Townsend was so keyed up he broke out in a rash.