The Payback Was Perfect : Imperfect the Previous Season, Indiana Went 32-0, Wire to Wire, Winning the 1976 NCAA Title

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Winning is one thing. Never losing is quite another.

Kentucky and Kansas, UMass and UConn. Each goes into the NCAA tournament as a heavyweight contender, each with a blemish here or there accumulated over five long months of games, each anxious to cut down the nets and celebrate a season to remember.

One spring, 20 years ago, that crowning achievement celebrated two seasons to remember.

In 1976, Indiana went wire-to-wire without a loss, Big Ten champions, NCAA tournament champions and the first of coach Bob Knight's three national championship teams.

Those Hoosiers finished 32-0, the last team to accomplish a perfect season. It was, though, payback for the imperfect season of the year before.

In 1975, Indiana won 31 consecutive games and seemed headed for the title. Then in the NCAA Regional finals at Dayton--one step from the Final Four--the Hoosiers lost 92-90 to Kentucky. And in one game, 40 minutes of basketball decided by two points, the perfect season had evaporated.

Scott May, one of the team's top scorers, still remembers that last game and the empty feeling it left in the locker room.

"I remember how the team and coach were at the end of the Kentucky game, the atmosphere and how quiet it was," May said. "We had lost a basketball game and it was like the world had ended. I said to (teammate) Bobby Wilkerson, 'I never want to see this team like this again.' I didn't want to ever see that again. And I didn't."

Point guard Quinn Buckner still insists that team was better than the next year's championship squad.

"The year before, we were a better team," he said. "It's not close. We had four seniors, Knight's original recruits. We were deeper."

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With Indiana out of the way, John Wooden's last UCLA team won the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in 12 years, beating Kentucky for the 1975 championship. In Bloomington, Ind., it was tough to convince the Hoosiers that the best team had won the title.

Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, though, Knight's players set out to correct the oversight.

"That loss to Kentucky set in concrete for the returning players that we had to do whatever it took to prepare for 1976 and win it all," center Kent Benson said. "The only way we'd be satisfied would be to go undefeated. We were so close in '75. We made a commitment to each other to do whatever we had to do."

That summer, Knight approached May and Buckner with a proposition.

"Coach called us in and said we had a chance to play UCLA in the first game the next season," Buckner said. "Scott and I said, 'Let's go!' "

Opening the season against the defending national champions would give Indiana an opportunity to make a statement.

"It was time to let everybody know about this team," Buckner said. "There was nobody we didn't think we could beat."

Indiana hammered UCLA 84-64 in the opener.

"The attitude was, 'Let's play anybody who's any good. Let's play them all,' " May said. "We didn't let anybody slip by. When we beat UCLA by 20 in the opener, that made a statement. That told everybody IU was for real."

After wins over Florida State and Notre Dame, Indiana girded for a rematch with Kentucky at Louisville. Trailing by two points in the closing seconds, Indiana went for the tying basket. Tom Abernethy's shot was swatted away by Rick Robey. Under the basket, Benson stabbed at the rebound. The ball went straight up . . . and came straight down through the net for the tying points.

"It was not intended to be a tip-in," Benson said. "All I could do was get a hand on it and throw it on the boards for another opportunity at a rebound."

The overtime was all Hoosiers. Final score: Indiana 77, Kentucky 68.

For the next two months, Indiana was on cruise control. There were occasional close calls--a two-point win at Ohio State, a four-point win over Purdue--but mostly there were blowouts like a 101-74 victory over Virginia Tech, an 83-55 romp at Illinois and a 114-61 thumping against Wisconsin.

It wasn't always smooth sailing. There were times when Knight clashed with his players.

"Sometimes, if I knew I made the play that had to be made and he disagreed I might stare at him," Buckner said. "He'd say, 'Don't look at me in that tone of voice.' "

Through it all, the Hoosiers thrived.

"Everybody came at us and gave us their best shot," Benson said. "They all wanted a piece of us."

Michigan nearly got one.

Indiana had won the first meeting against the Wolverines by six points at Ann Arbor. The rematch at Bloomington would be more memorable, especially for Benson.

Trailing by two with 10 seconds to play, the Hoosiers came out of a timeout. Sixth man Jim Crews threw the ball in and Buckner wound up taking the shot for the tie with three seconds left. He was off-target, but Crews recovered the loose ball and heaved it toward the hoop.

Once again, there was Benson, waiting under the basket for another buzzer-beater to force overtime.

Was it a shot or a tip? The difference is vital because the rules then required a tip to be through the rim before the buzzer to be good while a shot could still be en route at the buzzer and count.

Benson says there is no question.

"I've got a picture that proves it was a shot," he said. "The clock shows one second. I had control of it and I knew what I had to do. If your definition of a shot is going up, coming down and going up again, no way it was a shot. I was in control of the ball in midair, and my intention was to put it in."

There was some spirited discussion before the officials ruled the basket good. Again, the Hoosiers ruled the overtime. Final score: Indiana 72, Michigan 67.

Except for another close game against Purdue which Indiana won 74-71, the Hoosiers rolled through the rest of the season, reaching the NCAA tournament at 27-0, a replay of 1975.

Was there pressure on them? Not according to May.

"We didn't play not to lose," he said. "We went in saying this is what we do on offense and this is what we do on defense. Stop us if you can. That was our mindset. We were confident and experienced."

Buckner puts it this way: "I remember our tenacity and how determined we were to be successful. We could play better, longer. If you walk in prepared, that's a big part of winning. We were always prepared.

"Coach emphasized the day, the circumstance, the possession. Everyone was like the last one. Take care of that one, the rest takes care of itself. We were not allowed to feed on looking ahead."

In those days, 32 teams reached the tournament so winning the championship required five victories.

"We knew what we had to do," Benson said. "Play to our potential. If we did, there was not a team in the country that could beat us."

Indiana wiped out St. John's, Alabama, Marquette and UCLA. One game to go and there, waiting, once again, was old pal Michigan.

It would be the third meeting of the season between the Big Ten rivals and the most important one. And for the first 20 minutes, things did not go well for the Hoosiers. Bobby Wilkerson was knocked unconscious in an early collision and carried off the court. At halftime, Michigan led 35-29.

"I remember being down six at halftime and how when we had played them at our place we were down and coach was ranting and raving about how we were going to blow it," May said. "I remember thinking maybe he was right, maybe we weren't that good."

Now Knight entered the locker room. May said there was no fire and brimstone this time.

"He came in and said, 'If you want to be champions and make history, you've got 20 minutes to prove it,' and he walked out. That was all the motivation and drive we needed to get it done."

May, who scored 26 points, and Benson, who had 25, ignited an Indiana offense that ran off 10 unanswered points. The Hoosiers shot 60% from the field in the second half and held Michigan to 36%. Final score: Indiana 86, Michigan 68.

Mission accomplished.

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