ON THIS DAY: Perfection Attained for 1976 Indiana National Champions
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Just as it's painful to set a lofty goal and then fail to achieve it, there is nothing better than setting that same goal again, and then accomplishing it despite all odds.
Absolutely nothing better.
Quinn Buckner still remembers it like it was yesterday. He remembers his young and fiery coach, Bob Knight, standing in front of his team in the fall of 1975 and telling them what they were capable of accomplishing.
Winning the Big Ten wouldn't be enough, Knight said before embarking on that 1975-76 season. Even winning an NCAA title wouldn't be enough for this group, for one reason, and one reason only.
This group, to be successful, needed to win EVERY GAME that it played. Anything less would mean failing to reach its potential.
Indiana would do just that, too, winning all 32 games and claiming the national title on this day back in 1976, a mere 44 years ago. March 29, 1976 was a very special day.
"That was his challenge to us from the first day,'' Buckner said during an interview a few years ago. "He knew what we were capable of, and he wanted to be sure we knew what we were capable of, too. Certainly, there were challenges along the way, but there was never a time that season where we didn't think we would win every game that we suited up to play in.''
That's true, but for this core group of Hoosiers — Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson and Bobby Wilkerson — the plan was the same thing a year earlier, too. They were undefeated in 1975 too before losing to Kentucky in the regional final, in small part because May, their best player, had broken his arm and was ineffective in trying to return too soon.
The second chance, they couldn't let that slip away.
And they didn't, but not without some serious concern on that final night on March 29. Wilkerson, their senior guard and lockdown defender, fell hard just two minutes into the first half after taking an inadvertent elbow to the head and had to be taken off the court, never to return because of a concussion.
And when the Hoosiers trailed Michigan 35-29 at the half, there was some concern that the dream would once again fall short.
"I'm thinking, here we are again, in the final game and one of our best players goes down,'' May said a few years ago about losing Wilkerson so early in the game.
But the Hoosiers, who had already beaten Michigan twice that year in some epic battles, did find a way. May and Benson, their two all-Americans, simply dominated the second half and willed the Hoosiers to victory. May scored 26 points and Benson had 25 in the 86-68 victory. Buckner added 16 and Tom Abernethy had 11.
Jim Wisman and Jim Crews filled in admirably for Wilkerson, scoring just a couple of free throws each but keeping the Hoosiers intact on both sides of the court. Mission accomplished.
"It has stood the test of time,'' Buckner said of that undefeated season, which hasn't been accomplished by anyone since, a streak going on 44 years now. "Coach Knight said it then, and none of us knew what he meant. He said, 'take a look at this team, you’ll never see another one like it.' And I’ll remember that until the day I die.''
Knight was only 35 years old at the time, so there was pressure on him too for throwing down that gauntlet of winning them all. That's why the postgame pictures mean so much, those of Knight smiling and enjoying the celebration as much as his players.
He knew it then, too, that this was a unique team. Never again, he thought, and — 44 years later — he's still right.
"It was jubilation. It was relief. I think for all of us, the biggest part of that was to see the smile on Coach Knight’s face,'' Buckner said. "We didn’t see that very often. You know it’s a memorable moment when you see that on his face.’’
Those smiles still mean a lot to Buckner, all these many years later. When Knight returned to Assembly Hall for the first time in 20 years back in February, Buckner cherished every moment of the lovefest.
VIDEO: Quinn Buckner talks about Bob Knight's return
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