In 1975, Indiana graduated five seniors, including leading scorer Steve Green and “super sub” John Laskowski, from the dominant squad that steamrolled its way through the regular season undefeated before losing a heartbreaker, 92-90, to Kentucky in the Mideast Region final. Knight wouldn’t let his team forget the disappointing setback, which became a source of motivation for his 1975-76 team. In the 2017 Showtime documentary “Perfect in ’76,” Knight recalled the challenge he issued to his players the day before Indiana’s first practice that fall.
“Winning the Big Ten didn’t make any difference,” Knight said. “And winning the national championship didn’t make any difference. If you will continue to work and follow what we want done, you have the ability to go undefeated, and anything less than that would not be the equivalent of what your capabilities were. And I said, ‘That’s all.’ We started practice the next day.”
Close calls along the way
Indiana, which outscored opponents by 22 points per game in 1974-75, was voted the preseason No. 1 team. It returned four starters, including seniors Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson, whom Knight considered the greatest pair of defensive guards in college basketball history. The Hoosiers weren’t concerned with preseason accolades or bothered by the lofty expectations.
“Finishing on top at the end of the season, that’s our goal,” senior forward Tom Abernethy, who filled the vacancy in the starting lineup left by Green, told reporters.
In early November, Indiana played an exhibition game against the Soviet Union’s national team in Indianapolis. “Hoosiers Kill Diplomacy,” read the headline in the Indianapolis Star after Knight’s squad exacted some revenge for the USSR’s controversial win over the United States in the 1972 Summer Olympics. (Knight always considered the Soviets’ gold medals stolen.)
“If the diplomats had been among the 17,377 watching Indiana’s 94-78 victory over the Russian Nationals, ‘détente’ would have gone out of the vocabulary,” the Star’s Ray Marquette wrote.
The outcome was secondary to the performance of senior forward Scott May, who scored a game-high 34 points. It was an indication May was fully recovered from the broken arm he suffered in February, which limited him to seven minutes in Indiana’s season-ending loss to Kentucky. May had scored 25 points in a blowout win over the Wildcats during the 1974-75 regular season, and many believed Indiana would have finished perfect that year if not for his injury.
“My dad would tell you the ’75 team was actually better,” Knight’s son, Pat, told Sports Illustrated in 2021.
Indiana opened the 1975-76 regular season with a nationally televised showdown against defending champion and preseason No. 2 UCLA on Nov. 29. The Hoosiers cruised to an 84-64 win before a crowd of 19,000 in St. Louis. May scored 33.
“There were some things I didn’t like — some turnovers and a few mental mistakes and lapses on defense,” Knight, who rarely admitted being satisfied with his team’s performance, told reporters. “But for an opening game, I had to be pretty well pleased. I’m just glad it’s over, that we’re out of the fish bowl, and now we can concentrate on the rest of our season.”
Unlike Indiana’s 1974-75 regular season, which featured only four games decided by single digits, the 1975-76 campaign brought numerous close calls. On Dec. 11, the Hoosiers survived a furious second-half comeback by eighth-ranked Notre Dame and improved to 3-0 with a 63-60 win at Assembly Hall.
“I’ve said it all along that this basketball team has a long way to go,” Knight told reporters. “Our concentration broke down. This is a team that has got to be better mentally if it’s going to reach its potential.”
Four days later, Indiana needed a late putback by junior center Kent Benson to force overtime and avoid an upset by No. 20 Kentucky in Louisville.
“People just don’t seem to understand, no matter what I say, that there are a lot of good basketball teams in America,” Knight said afterward.
The Hoosiers improved to 9-0 and capped their nonconference schedule with a seven-point win over St. John’s at sold-out Madison Square Garden. The Big Ten season would offer additional tests, including a 66-64 win at Ohio State in the conference opener.
Michigan gave Indiana all it could handle in an 80-74 Hoosiers win in Ann Arbor in early January. In the rematch at home on Feb. 7, Indiana trailed 47-39 with 12:52 remaining before rallying for a 72-67 overtime win.
Sophomore forward Wayne Radford sparked the comeback with a career-high 16 points off the bench, including six in the extra session. Benson tied the game at the end of regulation with a buzzer-beating putback after Jimmy Crews corralled a Buckner miss along the baseline and deflected it toward the hoop. Officials ruled Benson controlled the ball before scoring. Had they deemed it a tip, the basket may not have counted, because the rules at the time required tip-ins to be in the hoop when time expired.
Benson’s buzzer-beater wasn’t the Michigan game’s only source of controversy. During the first half, Knight grabbed sophomore reserve guard Jim Wisman by the jersey after he made three poor inbounds passes. The Indianapolis Star published two photos of the incident on the front page.
“I regretted it immediately after it happened and I regret it today,” Knight, whose hot temper got the best of him on several occasions throughout his career and ultimately led to his firing by Indiana in 2000, said the next day after apologizing to Wisman.
“People reacted like he was trying to hurt me,” Wisman said. “He was just making a point. … He said he didn’t mean to grab my shirt. I deserved it after making errors like that.”
Angered by the Star’s decision to publish the photos, Knight attempted to prohibit photographers from the court for Indiana’s next home game, but the school overruled him. The Hoosiers put the potential distraction behind them and posted consecutive comfortable victories against Michigan State and Illinois. The next week featured another close call in the form of a 74-71 win at Purdue, which had given the Hoosiers one of their biggest scares of the previous season.
In the regular season finale three weeks later, Knight introduced his five seniors to the Assembly Hall crowd before Indiana improved to 27-0 with a 29-point rout of Ohio State.
“For the past five years — and I’m speaking as a fan now — we have been privileged to watch five tremendous young men exhibit their skills in this arena,” Knight said.
The Hoosiers began their NCAA tournament run with a 90-70 win over St. John’s. May scored 25 points to help Indiana hold off No. 6 Alabama, 74-69, in the Mideast Region semifinals after the Hoosiers blew a 12-point second-half lead. The Star reported that Knight “flashed a momentary smile to himself and even did a little skip step” after Indiana defeated second-ranked Marquette, 65-56, in the Mideast Region final two days later. (Full tournament seeding wasn’t introduced until 1979, which put an end to the absurdity of the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams meeting in the Sweet 16.)
“I’m happy for the team” Knight said after the win over Marquette. “That’s what I told them in the dressing room; that I was really pleased they have a chance to go to the Final Four of the tournament.”
Indiana earned its 31st consecutive win and clinched a spot in the national title game with a 65-51 win over UCLA at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Wilkerson finished with five points, seven assists and 19 rebounds, and he led a stifling defense that limited the Bruins to 34 percent shooting.
A familiar foe — Michigan — stood between Indiana and perfection.
“I’ve never really dreamed that we’d have to play Indiana three times,” Michigan Coach Johnny Orr said after the Wolverines defeated Rutgers in the other semifinal. “Good gracious, twice is bad enough.”
Knight and Orr were good friends. In fact, after Michigan’s win over Rutgers, Knight called Orr to congratulate him and pretended to be President Gerald Ford.
“I mean who ever heard of a president coming from Ohio State,” Orr joked after recounting the prank for reporters on the eve of the championship.
Knight invited his former Ohio State teammate John Havlicek to address the Hoosiers before the game the next night, March 29. Less than three minutes in, Wilkerson was concussed after taking an inadvertent elbow to the side of the head from Michigan’s Wayne Britt and taken to Temple Hospital for observation. With Indiana trailing 35-29 at halftime, Knight’s message in the locker room was calm and direct.
“You’re in the process of throwing away something you worked on all year,” he recalled in “Perfect in ’76.”
Knight used three different guards to replace Wilkerson before settling on Wisman after the break. Wisman scored only two points, but he had six assists against one turnover and helped spark a 57-point second-half outburst that led to an 86-68 win. May finished with a game-high 26 points. Benson, who was named the tournament’s MVP, added 25.
“Nothing, but nothing, can touch this,” said the 35-year-old Knight, who became the youngest coach to win a title. “It’s the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. But what makes it so great is what it means to the kids. … For two years this has been our objective.”
Years later, in his memoir written with legendary sportswriter Bob Hammel of the Bloomington Herald-Times, Knight said not winning in 1975, when he knew he had the best team in the country, “made it more of a relief than anything” when Indiana won in 1976. “A regret I’ll never shed is that those 1975 seniors — the first kids to join our brand-new program — didn’t get to experience that championship feeling,” Knight said.
Green, the leading scorer on the 1975 team that finished 31-1, was Knight’s first recruit after Indiana hired him away from Army in March 1971.
Indiana became the seventh undefeated national champion in the NCAA tournament era, joining the Bill Russell-led University of San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957) and four UCLA teams coached by John Wooden (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973).
Five teams — 1979 Indiana State, 1991 UNLV, 2014 Wichita State, 2015 Kentucky and 2021 Gonzaga — have gone undefeated in the regular season since, but none of them made it through the tournament unscathed. Over the years, members of Indiana’s 1976 squad have expressed surprise that their feat hasn’t been repeated, and some said they wouldn’t mind seeing another team join the club.
“If somebody can do it,” Abernethy told Sports Illustrated in 2021, “more power to them.”
“One of the things that he said to our 1976 team, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of, was that you may never see another team like this again,” Buckner said in a statement Wednesday. “Well, I don’t know that we will ever see another coach like him again.”