Sorry Kentucky, No One Will Beat Indiana's Undefeated Record
Well, for the moment.
Nothing against the gifted Wildcats, but they'll lose, too. If an average Arkansas bunch doesn't shock them on Saturday at Rupp Arena, then Vanderbilt or Tennessee will get them. And if they survive that, surely they won't make it through either the SEC or NCAA Tournament at whatever-and-0.
There are few "nevers" in life, and here is one of them: As long as there is dribbling, you'll never see another men's college basketball team go undefeated. Not next year, not next century, not ever. Not with this epidemic of one-and-done wonders. Not with the constant movement of coaches. Not with the ESPN Top 10 rattling around the heads of fundamentally unsound players. Not with many teams lacking upper classmen in their starting lineups with talent and experience. Not with parity reaching its zenith with even the likes of Northern Iowa and New Mexico as mighty forces.
Which means those 1976 Indiana Hoosiers of Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bob Wilkerson and Tom Abernethy will spend eternity as the last team ever to snatch a national championship with an unblemished record.
Somebody predicted as much 34 years ago. Somebody named Bob Knight, the normally explosive coach of those Hoosiers, who nevertheless gave his prophecy in soft tones back then at the strangest moment. It was during intermission of the title game in Philadelphia, where Indiana trailed Michigan by six points. Not only that, Wilkerson suffered a concussion during the first half. His teammates trudged into the locker room with heavy hearts after they saw their high-soaring guard who was a potent weapon on defense carried off the court on a stretcher.
Knight's halftime speech began by assuring his team that Wilkerson was resting comfortably in a local hospital. Then, with those in the room expecting Knute Rockne from their coach's tongue, they got Mister Rogers instead.
"Coach Knight knew our mindset and that our concern was with Bobby Wilkerson's condition, and he also knew what we could accomplish as a team in the second half if we went out there and played the way we were capable of playing," Benson told FanHouse on Thursday, recalling the quiet scene at the old Spectrum, where he was the only junior in a senior-laden starting lineup for the Hoosiers.
"So Coach Knight proceeded to say, 'Well, boys, during the next 20 minutes, you have an opportunity to go out and make history.' I think Coach Knight kind of saw or prophesized -- or whatever word you wish to use -- what was about to happen in the game [an eventual 86-68 blowout for the Hoosiers to finish 32-0], and he just knew that it might not ever happen again."
It won't happen again, but you'll always have the teases.
There were those 1990-1991 Runnin' Rebels of Jerry Tarkanian, with so much speed, style and skill that it was ridiculous -- and irrelevant. After going 27-0 during the regular season, UNLV dropped its Final Four date with Duke by two points.
Thirteen years later, St. Joseph also went 27-0 during the regular season, but Xavier knocked the Hawks out of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Now, five years after that, you have an 18-0 Kentucky team with several of those elements as to why it nor anybody else will become that 1976 Indiana team during this millennium or beyond. The Wildcats' star player, John Wall, is a freshman guard with one of his sneakers on campus and the other somewhere in the NBA. Plus, he is joined in Kentucky's starting lineup by two other freshmen (DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe), a sophomore (Darius Miller) and a junior (Patrick Patterson).
Not exactly the stuff of Buckner, Wilkerson, May, Abernethy and Benson. While this Kentucky team is seeking to develop cohesion over months, that 1976 Indiana team did so over years.
Consider this: The season before winning it all, those Hoosiers lost once -- a crushing 92-90 thriller to Kentucky in the regional finals when they were forced to play without an injured May, their leading scorer. The only starter who didn't return for Indiana's national championship run was Steve Green, a prolific shooter, who was replaced by Abernethy, a defensive, passing rebounding specialist.
So Indiana finished those two seasons 63-1.
Sixty-three and one.
"We, as a group, who came back after that Kentucky loss, we all knew what we had to do during the summer to prepare and to be ready to play in 1976," Benson said. "We each worked on our individual game and developed our skills to the finest, and then when we came back together collectively, we had one thought in mind: that was to win the national championship. After that Kentucky experience, we knew the only way we could reach that goal was to go undefeated.
"Still, it was not a matter of us looking at it from the perspective of losing or not losing games, but it was the fact that our whole approach was to go out to play up to our potential each time we took the court. If we executed our offense, and if we continued to play the kind of team defense that we were capable of playing, we knew people were going to be hard-pressed to beat us.
"That's exactly what Coach Knight always talked about -- playing with poise and playing up to our potential."
In other words, they were destined for a perfect record, because they had the perfect team, starting with the perfect coach. With Knight demanding efficiency from everybody in his motion offense and man-to-man defense, the Hoosiers had Buckner as their ultimate playmaker and team captain. They also had May as the eventual national college player of the year, along with the stifling defense of Abernethy and Wilkerson.
And Benson? Well, he joined May as a consensus All-American choice, and he was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1976 NCAA Tournament.
Just like that, Indiana became the seventh team ever to go undefeated after UCLA did so four times during the 1960s and 1970s. San Francisco started it all with Bill Russell and KC Jones winning all of their games in 1956, and then North Carolina followed San Francisco's example the next season.
Nobody will follow Indiana.
Or will they?
"It's funny how the sports world keeps looking for a sensational story -- you know, for that to happen, and it seems like each year, it gets earlier and earlier when people want to know the answer to that question," said Benson, 55, who lives in Bloomington, where he raises funds for local high schools to keep their extra-curricular activities going. "I didn't know Texas got beat until [he was told during this interview with FanHouse]. But I knew that Texas and Kentucky were the last two undefeated teams up to this point.
"Records certainly are made to be broken. But what? It's been 34 years? Whether a team does go undefeated again, I can't say that it doesn't matter to me."
Which makes you wonder: The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the NFL's last undefeated team, and since then, some of those Dolphins raise a toast after the last undefeated team falls each year. "No, sir. We don't do anything like that," Benson said, with a little chuckle. "We're very proud of what we accomplished, but we're not so wrapped up in it that we live and die with it as the undefeated teams fall."
And they'll continue to fall.