Rarely have the philosophies of two basketball teams been more contrasting than those of the opponents in the championship game of last week's Sugar Bowl Classic. On one side were Indiana's dour Hoosiers, the defending national champions who make an airborne division look poorly disciplined; on the other were Cincinnati's Bearcats, a joking and jiving combo that just might pussyfoot its way to an NCAA title this spring.
In fact, some of the rogue 'Cats already think they are No. 1 (they were ranked fifth before the Sugar Bowl), and it was hard to argue with them after they rollicked to a 52-43 win over Indiana at the Superdome in New Orleans. For the Hoosiers, a team adrift in turbulent waters, it was an ignominious defeat in a season of recrimination. Indiana lost with star Center Kent Benson, among others, being punished on the bench, while at least one player, freshman Glen Grunwald, dabbed at tears on his cheeks.
Cincinnati left 'em weeping by winning the way it always does, with a twist-and-shout offense, then staged a post-game celebration during which the Bearcats acted as if they should be wearing lampshades on their heads. And lest anyone think that this is not the way to a national championship, it should be noted that this band of raffish merrymakers is both unabashed and undefeated.
To keep that record intact, Cincinnati needed a halftime wake-up call in its Sugar Bowl opener against South Carolina, which led 32-30 after the first half. In the second half the Bearcats yawned, then shot 69% to win 79-62. The next evening Cincy shifted tactics—it led most of the way using a four-corner offense that spread the Indiana defense and allowed the Bearcats to do the one-on-one moves they prefer—but the result was the same as the 'Cats ran their record to 9-0 and their laughs to a million.
January 10, 1977
The biggest yukker of all was Mike Jones, the Bearcats' loquacious forward who rattles opposing players with an endless stream of twitting chatter, showboats his one-handed rebounds and does something resembling the Ali shuffle whenever a teammate makes a good play.
It was Jones who saved the Bearcats against South Carolina with a .750 shooting percentage from the floor, and it was he who swished four jumpers as Cincy broke open the game against Indiana. His 13-for-22 shooting in the tournament earned him the Most Valuable Player award, a prize that accomplished the impossible. Said Jones about being MVP: "I'm speechless."
But the final was much more than a battle of jump shots. It was a victory for rambunctiousness over regimentation. While Cincinnati was carousing in New Orleans, Indiana was closeted—a foretaste of relaxed Pitt and restrained Georgia in the town's big football game. After going 32-0 last season, the Hoosiers came to the Sugar Bowl with a 4-3 record and reports of team meetings without Coach Bobby Knight and general unrest.
So Indiana stayed in quarantine and practiced knotting its ties as the Bearcats went to Bourbon Street for a night of crayfish and comedy, finishing up in Cincy alum Al Hirt's jazz club after midnight. Of course, this attitude could turn out to be dangerous. One day the club may die laughing. "We scare me," says Gary Yoder, the Bearcats' senior play-maker. "In practice we goof around and don't play hard, but when the big game comes up, we get down and play ball."
Knight is turning gray wondering when his team is going to play ball. All but one of the stars from last year's team are graduated, and a string of other players has left Indiana to work for less demanding coaches. One of them is Larry Bird, who departed for Indiana State two seasons ago and now ranks in the national top 10 in both scoring and rebounding. Worst of all, so many of Knight's best new prospects were injured in preseason drills that Ace bandages are now part of the Hoosier uniform. Finally, rumors are rampant that All-America Benson, a devout young man, is upset over Knight's pungent vocabulary and that some of the younger players are rebelling over being ordered around as if they were at Parris Island.
Against Cincinnati, Indiana's mood was manifested when, with 10 minutes left and his team down six points. Knight pulled Benson to the sidelines. Then Knight knelt and lectured his captain in a voice that could be heard by the press and nearby spectators. "Your play is a disgrace," he said. "We may lose tonight, but not with you. You're done. If we're going to go down, we're going to go down with guys who are busting their bleep."
On their bench the Cincinnati coaches sat relieved but mystified as Indiana, playing four freshmen and a sophomore, tried futilely to cover the Bearcats' frustrating four-corner offense, patiently directed by Yoder and Eddie Lee.
Afterwards the fans taunted Knight with cries of "You quitter," and the Indiana coach pulled his Hoosiers into the locker room and kept the door sealed for 45 minutes. Knight's son, Timmy, was sent to collect Benson's All-Tournament Team award, an honor the coach later said "amazed" him.
"Indiana wouldn't be enjoying themselves right now, even if they had won," said Yoder. "The fun is gone from the game for them. Winning the Sugar Bowl is nice, being No. 1 would be nice, all the glory is nice, but it's not the most important thing in the world. If you lose, the sun will come up tomorrow."
For the Bearcats, the sun will catch them smiling. Coach Gale Catlett wears garish triple-knit suits and is so outspoken that perplexed fans do not know whether to love him or arrest him for eyeball pollution and a speeding tongue. His team has averaged 21 victories in his four years at Cincinnati and has a 51-game homecourt win streak, the nation's longest, despite a penchant for the shot selection of a drunken hunter. "I know they're bad shots," says Catlett, "but I want them to experiment. That's what college basketball is all about."
Catlett's theory was illustrated by reserve Forward Curtis Cabbell, who spent the afternoon before the final in the hotel lobby filling a large hat with girls' phone numbers for a victory party that night. Cabbell is nicknamed Rev. Moon because of an embarrassing incident in Cincinnati's opening game. As he rushed to the scorer's table to check in for his initial appearance of the season, Cabbell pulled off his warmup and his uniform pants.
Catlett may give out a soft-shoe routine about taking things easy and enjoying life but he is assiduous in his preparation. On the day of the Indiana game he and his assistant, Gary McPherson, huddled with Georgia Coach John Guthrie, whose team had lost to Indiana 74-52 in the opening round. The session reinforced Catlett's thinking that Indiana could be beaten with a zone defense that walled in Benson. That tactic paid off, as the Hoosier center scored only eight points.
Before the Cincinnati game, the Indiana manager made certain the coach's chair was movable, which would make it easier for Knight to kick it in case he wanted to. Against Cincinnati, his boot came with one second remaining before halftime, when Jones scored on a dunk for a 24-18 Bearcat lead.
Indiana rallied to take the lead several times early in the second half, but with about 14 minutes left, Cincinnati got in gear again, with baskets by Yoder, Jones and Lee giving it a 37-31 edge. Then Benson was remanded to the bench.
Later, Catlett invited the press to a team meeting during which he gave his players two days off, suspended curfew and warned them not to sack the French Quarter. After all, they had done enough pillaging for one night.