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Forty-Five Years Later, Perfection Is Still Chasing 1975–76 Indiana

The last undefeated team in men’s Division I college basketball history does not go all 1972 Miami Dolphins every March. They don’t pop champagne corks, dance in delirium or exchange long-distance high fives every time the last unbeaten team in their sport finally loses in any given season. They understand the sentiment, of course, the history involved, how the magnitude grows larger every year and how everyone else fails to duplicate their historic, long-ago success. Perhaps they also care more than they let on.

Regardless, for 45 years now, the 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers have expected another program to match their mark, to win every game in the regular season and every game in a conference tournament and every NCAA tournament affair. Surely, a Duke, a Kentucky, a North Carolina—one would, at some point, in some year, complete a “perfect” season.

In 2015 Kentucky almost did. The Wildcats won 31 games, the SEC tournament and advanced to the Final Four, becoming the first lossless team to do so in 24 seasons. Then they ran into Wisconsin, losing in the semifinals. After that defeat Pat Knight called his father, Bob, the coach of the last undefeated men’s team in college hoops. Bob Knight shot back an “Are you serious?” in the way that only Bob Knight can. Point being: He did not celebrate and did not care. “If I were on that [Indiana] team, I’d be like the Dolphins,” Pat Knight says now, before another NCAA tournament. “But honest to God, I’ve never heard anyone make a big deal out of it.”

“If somebody can do it,” says Tom Abernethy, a starting forward for those unbeaten Hoosiers, “more power to them.”

It’s fruitless to compare teams, anyway, across eras and decades and rules changes and busy transfer portals and straight-to-the-NBAers and one-and-dones. Not to mention several basketball evolutions, each with its own distinct challenges and limitations.

And yet, in a comparison society, this particular one persists, marking an annual exercise those Hoosiers insist that they disdain. In most seasons, the final undefeated team in men’s college basketball loses its first game in January, February or early March, with only rare exceptions (Indiana State, 1979, March 26; UNLV, 1991, March 30; Wichita State, 2014, March 23; those ’15 Wildcats, April 4). On average, the last team to lose in any given year wins 20.7 games beforehand; also on average, they stumble by Feb. 8. Even those programs that have approached IU’s mark all hold one thing in common: Eventually, they failed. In fact, college basketball hasn’t crowned even a one-defeat champion in that time period and only seven teams with two losses have been showered with confetti (the last: Kentucky in 2012).

It has been 42 years since any men’s squad advanced to the title game undefeated. Or long enough for Larry Bird to lose that game, become an NBA Hall of Famer, then an NBA executive and turn 64 in December.

The Hoosiers, like most people their age, realize how quickly life can change—how even the best, more cherished memories can and do fade with time. They’ve grown up and started to grow old, become coaches and scouts and business executives. They’ve lost team members, like reserve forward Wayne Radford, who died earlier this year from a ruptured aneurysm.

They’ve also watched, along with a nation of college basketball obsessives, the 2020–21 Gonzaga Bulldogs, a team that features a breakneck offense, a loaded roster and an unbeaten record as the latest tournament enters its second week. Some, like Jim Crews, a reserve guard for the unbeaten Hoosiers, have family members who openly root for the Zags, a program that now stands four victories from a perfect season of its own. Crews and his teammates all say that they’re not hoping the Zags fall; as Crews says, “There’s enough happiness for everyone.”

Then there is Bob Weltlich, an assistant coach and longtime Bob Knight confidant who will admit what other Hoosiers have not said. It’s plausible, even likely, that in private many of his fellow ’75–76 alums agree with him. His confession: “I would be less than honest if I didn’t cheer every year for everyone to lose a game. Let’s put it this way, I’ve got [a bottle of champagne] hanging around somewhere. I know where it’s at. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t important to me.”

Bob Knight and Indiana after winning the 1976 national title

For the older Hoosiers, some memories do linger, flickering every so often, but especially when there’s an unbeaten power that emerges like the Zags. The IU crew knows that so much goes into that kind of season. Entire lifetimes, even.

Weltlich and Knight both grew up in Orrville, Ohio, where Weltlich’s mother taught a young Knight in second grade. Knight hired Weltlich as an assistant at Army, then brought his childhood friend to Indiana in 1971. The Hoosiers, under their shared tutelage, started to win immediately, bolstered in part by a head coach who set the highest of expectations, and who pushed his players in various ways—screaming, throwing chairs—that would be scrutinized over time. Back then, “He was so detail-oriented,” Abernethy says. “He would spend an awful lot of time on things that the FBI would overlook.”

Knight started every season with the same goal: Win the Big Ten conference. And in 1974–75, Indiana did just that, winning the regular-season title without a loss. But the Hoosiers’ All-American big man, Scott May, broke his left arm before the NCAAs started and Kentucky, a team that IU had rolled in December, ended the first bid for a perfect season with an upset victory in the Mideast regional final. “My dad would tell you the ’75 team was actually better,” Pat Knight says, and few of the Hoosiers who played on both teams would disagree. All say that the ’75 lineup featured more scorers and more lopsided wins. In 31 victories the Hoosiers only won by single digits four times; they beat teams that badly week after week.

Regardless, Indiana entered the next season with no less than perfect expectations. The day before Knight held his first practice, he told the assembled players, “You beat everybody that we play, that would be what you guys are capable of doing.”

Not everyone remembers Knight’s speech with a lens quite that cinematic. “I didn’t listen well,” Crews quips, “so I did not hear that.” Still, Crews remembers another Knight moment after the 1972–73 season, when the coach stood before a handful of players in the locker room, wrote the team’s record on a whiteboard (22–6) and circled the number in the loss column. “Why would we lose six times?” Knight asked them, a team that reached the national semifinals.

“Which,” Crews says, “is the same thing but said differently.”

In 1975 Knight had just turned 35 and was still implementing a different style of basketball in Indiana, emphasizing open shots and deliberate movement and a slower pace. That season, five seniors returned in Abernethy, Crews, May, Bob Wilkerson and Quinn Buckner, along with an anchor in the middle in junior Kent Benson. They would play tenacious defense, set screens, make extra passes and help the young coach perfect his motion offense. Abernethy replaced an adept scorer, the graduating and NBA-bound Steve Green (16.5 points per game the year before) in the starting lineup. What the Hoosiers lost in points Abernethy made up for with a versatile glue-guy skill set. For Gonzaga, think: Joel Ayayi.

Buckner served as a Knight conduit in games, becoming a vocal leader, in contrast to May’s more by-example approach. The coach asked his two stalwarts before the season started whether they wanted to play second-ranked UCLA at a neutral site to kick off the season. Of course, they both said yes; they desired to avenge a Final Four defeat by the Bruins during their freshmen season—the loss that led to Knight’s whiteboard salvo.

The Hoosiers? They entered the season atop the rankings. At one early press conference, someone asked Knight whether he knew that John Wooden, the UCLA legend, did not secure the first of 10 championships until age 53. “You know what I’ll be doing when I’m 53?” Knight spit back, according to the great Bob Hammel, the retired sports editor of the Daily Herald-Telephone (which became the Herald-Times), who wrote a book about the undefeated season titled, All the Way. “I’ll have my butt in a boat somewhere with a fishing pole in my hands,” Knight said, answering his own question.

Indiana guard Quinn Buckner (21) and Michigan guard Rickey Green (24) during the NCAA championship game held in Philadelphia, PA, at the Spectrum

Indiana guard Quinn Buckner (21) and Michigan guard Rickey Green (24) during the NCAA championship game held in Philadelphia, PA, at the Spectrum

As the perfect season started, a young Pat Knight stayed home. He was 6 then and hyperactive, and his father thought it best that the boy watch games on TV with his beloved babysitter, Tia. But even a 6-year-old understood the stakes—and right from the start, when the Hoosiers played an exhibition against the Soviet Union and won by double digits against the reigning Olympic champs. May, fully recovered from the broken arm, recorded 33 points on 15 shots. “Just spanked them,” Weltlich says.

Next: the always formidable Bruins at St. Louis Arena. May dropped 34 in another lopsided win. More triumphs followed, in all forms, whether in close games (Notre Dame, 63–60, after which Knight said, according to Hammel, “My team needs an enema”), overtime ones (Kentucky, 77–68, gaining revenge from the tournament loss the year before) or blowouts (too many to list). Florida State’s coach, Hugh Durham, reportedly summed up the Hoosiers perfectly: “They beat Russia to prove they’re the best in the world. And they beat UCLA to prove they’re the best in the United States. Now, I’d like to see them prove they’re human and have a bad game.”

The Hoosiers did prove that. Sort of. They didn’t stomp on opponents the way the previous team had. They won several close games, endured a handful of near losses and twice needed extra time to secure another victory. That’s part of what those Indiana players would tell Gonzaga, or any team pointed toward an undefeated season: They’ll need talent, fortitude, the right mix of players and chemistry and a little luck.

Indiana would beat St. John’s before a then-record crowd of more than 19,000 at Madison Square Garden. It would topple each Big Ten team—back when there were actually 10 teams—twice, including nine times on the road, by an average margin of 13.2 points. Perhaps the brutal early slate had steeled them; or perhaps that many tough, close games tired them for the remainder of the schedule. Either way, they won. And won. And won. And won.

Also, that luck: In an earlier February contest against Michigan, Indiana trailed by four points with one minute left, and this was before college basketball introduced a shot clock. The Hoosiers managed to score and get the ball back, and Benson tipped in a shot to force OT after Crews somehow tapped the ball off the backboard in the direction of the steady big man. Despite Wolverine angst over whether he tipped the ball in time, officials ruled for the Hoosiers, who, of course, prevailed in the extra period. “That was definitely a game that we probably should have lost,” Abernethy says.

“That was a wakeup call,” says Weltlich. “He basically punched in a loose ball.”

By season’s end, May would win National Player of the Year honors. Buckner would cement his place among Knight’s favorite players. Benson and Abernethy would average double figures. And on Senior Night, the coach turned to the crowd and told them, “Take a look at this group. Because you’ll never see another one like it again.”

As the years went by and the talent pool grew larger and the tournament less predictable, it seemed fair to wonder: Maybe he was right?

The closest teams to going undefeated since 1975-76 Indiana

The 2020–21 Gonzaga team is currently 28–0 heading into a Sweet 16 matchup with Creighton.

The tournament came next, and what Indiana accomplished that March only bolsters the argument for the Hoosiers as the best team in the history of men’s college basketball. Indiana would play five teams that at one point or another that season had been ranked in the top 10. The NCAA did not yet seed all teams, setting up a potential matchup with second-ranked Marquette in another Mideast regional final, the pairing so egregious that it helped lead to tournament seeding, which was first introduced in 1979.

It didn’t matter, anyway. The Hoosiers crunched St. John’s, outlasted Alabama, then soared past Marquette and UCLA to set up a national title rematch against Michigan. The Hoosiers crushed the Wolverines despite Wilkerson being knocked unconscious by a wayward collision in the paint; he left the floor on a stretcher. That did it. The perfect season.

Imagine Gonzaga winning this year but having to go through Baylor, Michigan, Illinois and Alabama. The Hoosiers traversed that kind of minefield. IU could boast of 11 victories over teams who had at least appeared in the top 10. Against top-20 opponents, the Hoosiers won 17 times.

Still, when the final buzzer sounded, Weltlich says IU felt more “relief” than anything. Knight termed the title a “two-year quest.” Abernethy remembers celebrating at the team hotel, mildly, with his parents and friends and future wife. All the questions, all the obstacles, all the near misses and big wins—all had led to that undefeated season, the seventh in the history of men’s college basketball. And, of course, the last.

Indiana's Tom Abernethy (33) and UCLA center/forward Rich Washington (31) during the NCAA Men's National Basketball Final Four semifinal game held in Philadelphia, PA

Indiana forward Tom Abernethy (33) and UCLA center/forward Rich Washington (31) during the Final Four semifinal game held in Philadelphia, PA, at the Spectrum.

For most of the best players, the NBA draft beckoned. May went second, Buckner seventh, followed by Wilkerson at No. 11 and Abernethy in the third round. Benson was selected first overall the next year.

For Hammel, the sportswriter, the undefeated season became something of a hobby. He began tracking undefeated bids by other programs, providing outlets like Sports Illustrated much of the research used in stories like this one. He noted, for instance, that in the men’s NCAA tournament era, only two teams finished consecutive regular seasons undefeated (the other being the 1972–73 Bruins of UCLA). And after more than 100 years of Big Ten basketball, only two men’s teams went 18–0 in conference. The perfect Hoosiers and the almost-perfect IU team before them.

Abernethy built a gym and named it the Indiana Basketball Academy. Like most of his teammates, he married, had kids, lost touch. At many of the 20 or so camps he ran every summer, he’d show the young hoopers video of Wilkerson’s injury and remind them of the perfect season that the Hoosiers once compiled. “They have no clue about us, or about me, to be honest,” he says.

As decades passed the last undefeated team in college basketball hardly got together anymore. Several did attend the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction, where Indiana became one of four teams to be inducted as a group. Several also went with Knight upon his return to Assembly Hall last year, watching him bask in the longest and loudest ovation. Like it was 1976 all over again.

They all watch other teams try to duplicate that season. They see programs like Gonzaga, which plays in a weaker conference (the WCC) but against a deeper talent pool, with a shot clock and a three-point line and all sorts of differentiators. The Hoosiers will skip any debates about whose season would ultimately be the “best” should Gonzaga win the whole thing on April 5. They know they’ve been named the best men’s team of all time consistently, and nothing that happens this March will change their collective mindset. Everyone can have their say. “They certainly deserve consideration,” Hammel says.

Pat Knight, sounding much like his father, says that current college basketball players are too soft to endure what that Indiana team fought through. Even then, though, he points out that Gonzaga put together its bid for perfection amid a global pandemic, without the benefit of a home crowd and awash in uncertainty. “I love Fewie to death,” he says, meaning Mark Few, the Zags longtime coach. “Their BYU win [in the conference tournament] showed a lot of guts. They have been tested, and they deserve all the props.”

What would those getting-older Hoosiers advise the Bulldogs of 2021? Don’t change, for one. Ignore the comparisons. Don’t panic. Don’t relax.

As for Bob Knight? His legacy—the good, the bad, the chairs thrown—endures. When fans of a certain age think of Indiana basketball, of course they think of him. At 53—the age he swore that he would be fishing—Knight remained on the Indiana bench, much like Few, all these years later. Knight’s team that year (’92–93) finished atop the polls for the regular season, but fell in the Elite Eight. He knew even better at that point what he already understood back in ’76, which is that being “perfect” in anything is a crapshoot, that the moments matter more than the record, or any made-up ranking. It’s likely, his son says, that Bob Knight would want Gonzaga to scratch out another perfect season—if only so those Hoosiers can cease talking about that magical campaign from 45 years ago.

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