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?"
April 5, 1976
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.
Townsend was one of two new faces in the lineup since the Indiana debacle. The other was David Greenwood, a freshman center who was just plain rash. "Lonnie Shelton of Oregon State is the best center I've guarded," said Greenwood. "Benson's not in his class. I've never feared any player. I know what he does and he doesn't know one thing about me. He has to worry about the freshman showing up the All-America."
Indiana has a remarkable ability to get emotionally ready for each game. Considering that they had destroyed UCLA once, the Hoosiers might have been excused for showing a surplus of confidence, but Knight was in no mood for excuses. Perhaps his biggest headache was how to handle Richard Washington, the Bruins' sharp-shooting 6'10" forward who was the star of the 1975 NCAA championship. Since May and Tom Abernethy are considerably shorter. Knight decided to put the 6'11" Benson on Washington. Good on paper, perhaps, but bad on the court. Before the game was two minutes old Washington had scored five points, the Bruins had a 7-2 lead and, worst of all, Benson had committed two fouls. Time out, Indiana.
When play resumed, Abernethy was guarding Washington, doing it so well that the UCLA star did not score again until 13 minutes were left in the game, and by then the Hoosiers had things under control. UCLA's weakness in the backcourt, which had troubled Bartow beforehand, was never more glaring, and once Indiana realized it could not be hurt by outside shooting from the UCLA guards, the Hoosiers sagged, clogging the middle. Marques Johnson, the other fine UCLA forward, rarely saw the ball and Washington had to go looking for it on the perimeter, making him the tallest guard in America.
Control swung to Indiana midway in the first half, and by intermission the Hoosiers led 34-26. Even though May was having the kind of lukewarm afternoon he has once every leap year, Indiana was able to widen the lead to 45-32 with 13:20 left.
Then the cocky Greenwood, who had been benched in the opening half, began grabbing every rebound in sight, and UCLA made it 48-42 with more than eight minutes left. But after a time-out, Indiana slowly and patiently worked the ball around, running the Bruins through a maze of screens before Abernethy, who is All-Unsung, broke loose underneath for an easy basket. You could hear the generators go off in the UCLA boiler room. At the far end of the press section a man in his mid-60s sat in silence. John Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 national titles, could do nothing to help.
The rest of the way the Hoosiers conducted a clinic in the delay game, neatly snapping around their passes and winning 65-51. "They made us feel very helpless, just like North Carolina State did two years ago," said Johnson.
If Indiana's victory over UCLA was easy, Michigan's over Rutgers was, well, a little sad. The Scarlet Knights arrived in Philadelphia with a 31-0 record. Three of their players wore beards, an unofficial NCAA record, and the team had an exciting, racehorse style, playing as if time was about to run out. The one major criticism leveled at the team was its meatless schedule, a charge that the Knights only dated losers. "Why do we have to apologize for being unbeaten?" said Coach Tom Young before the game.
Against Michigan the Knights looked eminently beatable, from the very beginning. They shot miserably, playing a holding defense that leaked layins, and never found a way to clip the wings of Michigan's fleet Green. Before the game, Rutgers reserves Mark Conlin and Steve Hefele had mused about what they would do if they won the national title. "I don't know," said Conlin, "I'd probably just go to sleep." Which is what Rutgers did.
The team's floor leader, Ed Jordan, picked up two offensive fouls trying to drive past the flitting Green; Phil Sellers shot as if the rim were in motion; in the first 10 minutes Rutgers missed a half dozen close-in shots. Everyone got anxious, and suddenly the team was in serious trouble. Before it played Michigan, Rutgers had not trailed all season by more than seven points. Now it was down 17 with about a minute before halftime and, worse, thinking "no, I can't" instead of "yes, I can" whenever it threw a pass or took a shot. The second half wasn't any better. The margin became 23 before the Wolverines eased off, winning 86-70, leaving Rutgers no longer undefeated, just unimpressive. "We're just back to being normal citizens again," said Rutgers' Mike Dabney.
Two days later, after losing to Indiana for the third time this season, Michigan knew just how Rutgers felt.