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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Bob Knight’s 1973-76 Indiana Hoosiers: What Might Have Been?

Bob Knight’s 1973-76 Indiana Hoosiers: What Might Have Been?

Publish Date: 04/07/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

What if’s are a huge talking point for fans of all teams, and Indiana Hoosier fans have a lot of what if’s like every other fan base. What if Mike Woodson didn’t get hurt in 1980? What if Alan Henderson didn’t get hurt in 1993? The biggest What if for Hoosier fans will always be the biggest what if Scott May doesn’t break his arm in a 1975 win over the Purdue Boilermakers? The Hoosiers lost to the Wildcats in the Regional Final in 1975 92-70 with May scoring two points in seven minutes. The premises for Hoosier fans has always been that if May didn’t get hurt, the Hoosiers would have beaten Kentucky and went on to beat UCLA for what would have been their first unbeaten season, which of course, would have been followed by the undefeated 1976 season.

When it comes to what if’s the only certain thing is that we are guessing about what might have happened, we don’t know for sure, but as fans we have no doubt what would have happened if everything would have worked out the way we wanted.

I think that Hoosier fans forget other things about that 1976 season and what truly was close to happening for the Hoosiers. Today we are going to look more at the 1973 and 1974 seasons and when we do we will see that what if’s were all around Bob Knight’;s program his first five seasons.

1972-73 season

We will start off with Bob Knight’s second season, a season that would end in the Final Four.

John Wooden and UCLA were unbeatable during the 1960s and ’70s in college basketball, so when their Bruins faced Indiana on March 24, 1973, in the national semifinals, it was expected to be just another bump on their path towards another title. Instead, Bob Knight, 32 years old at that time, easily led his young squad to heights nobody thought they would achieve so quickly in his tenure.

UCLA had won six consecutive national championships and was in the midst of what turned out to be an 88-game winning streak, an NCAA record that almost certainly will never be broken.

UCLA’s dominance was expected, and a trip to the Final Four became an annual rite of passage for Wooden and his Bruins. Indiana was ahead of the curve during Knight’s second year at Indiana, led by seniors Steve Downing and John Ritter; with help from sophomore newcomers Steve Green and John Laskowski as well as freshmen guards Quinn Buckner and Jim Crews – playing their first college seasons at that time!

The unbeaten Bruins, led by 6-foot-11 junior center Bill Walton took an early commanding lead, jumping out to a 40-22 advantage and seemingly dominating. But the Hoosiers kept fighting back, with Walton and Downing engaging in one of the greatest one-on-one battles in tournament history.

Downing made an impact despite picking up three fouls in the first half. Knight kept him in, as there was no other option with no one else available to guard Walton — and the Hoosiers kept pulling away. By late in the second half, their run had brought them within two points of victory.

With five minutes to go, it seemed inevitable how this game would end. Walton and Downing both had four fouls, so whichever team could keep their star player off the floor would gain a major advantage.

Unfortunately for Indiana, Downing was called for his fifth foul on what Indiana fans have long claimed was the worst call in Final Four history. No one saw any contact at the time and even grainy highlights don’t show anything. If anything the foul should have been called on Walton, if it had been the outcome of the game could have easily been changed.

With Downing out, UCLA made one more significant run and pulled away down the stretch, winning 70-59. Despite its final score, this game was much closer than that.

Downing’s Indiana career came to a difficult close in that loss. He had some unforgettable moments since arriving on campus with best friend George McGinnis, his teammate from the undefeated Indianapolis Washington State champions of 1969. Per NCAA regulations, both men sat out their freshman years, while McGinnis played one year before turning professional.

In 1971, Downing put up an incredible 47-point and 25-rebound performance against Kentucky that many consider the most significant individual performance in Indiana history. Prior to that, he also recorded the first triple-double in school history – scoring 28 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and blocking ten shots against Michigan in February 1971.

McGinnis never regretted leaving Indiana early, but he wished he could have been around to support his friend Downing in his battle against Walton.

McGinnis lamented, “Steve Downing got a terrible call against Bill Walton- and I wish I could have made a difference for that team.” McGinnis agreed: “If only I were on that team!”

Downing finished the night with 26 points, while Walton only had 14. Downing won the individual battle, but Walton and the Bruins emerged victorious in the end.

Indiana was fortunate to get an early taste of the Final Four setting them up for greatness throughout those seasons.

John Laskowski remarked, “Making such an impactful tournament run early in our careers proved to be immensely significant in the long run.” By 1975, all four of us had already been playing together for some time and formed an unbreakable bond.”

The big what if of course from the UCLA loss was, what if the foul had been called on Walton? The other what if would be what if George McGinnis had still been on this team?

1973-74 Season

Hoosier fans largely forget this season but this team was good enough to make another Final Four run; the issue was that this season was before the tournament’s expansion and only the Big Ten Champion would go to the NCAA Tournament.

It was no shock that the Hoosiers faced high preseason expectations for the first time in a decade, ranking #3 in the preseason poll, after making it to the Final Four in 1973. Unfortunately, that ranking proved to be their high point – not that they weren’t still an impressive team! After an impressive 3-0 start that included victories over Kansas and Kentucky, Indiana fell at home to #6 Notre Dame (one of only two wins ever recorded at Assembly Hall bu the Irish). They then suffered losses to Oregon State in the Far West Classic before dropping their Big Ten opener at Michigan to drop to 7-3 overall. The Hoosiers had won 13 straight games in Big Ten play and appeared set for another run at the NCAA Tournament. Instead, IU lost on the road against an ineffective Ohio State squad before narrowly defeating Purdue at home to remain tied with Michigan for the title. Unfortunately for the 1973-74 Hoosiers, they went 20-5/12-2 during their final season before the NCAA Tournament started inviting non-conference champions and independents. When IU and Michigan tied, there was only one available NCAA bid, so they faced off on a neutral court in Champaign to decide who would receive it; unfortunately for IU, Michigan came out victorious 75-67, negating any chance for another trip to the Final Four.

After failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Indiana was faced with an unfortunate trip to the Conference Commissioner’s Association Tournament – a brief attempt at taking on the NiT that was ultimately nullified by the expansion of the field in the NCAA Tournament the following season.

Knight’s years coaching on the east coast at Army and his multiple trips to the NIT while there gave him a high opinion of this tournament; just weeks prior, Knight had strongly preferred to attend the NIT rather than the CCA. However, the Big Ten was contractually required to send its runner-up to the CCA. Unfortunately, the tournament was poorly attended and held in St. Louis – the same arena where Indiana University had played in the Final Four a year earlier. Bob Hammel reported that Knight chose to treat the CCA as the start of their 74-75 season rather than an important tournament that he wanted to win. Laskowski and Benson were put in the starting lineup. After narrow victories over Tennessee and Toledo in the early rounds, Indiana cruised past USC 85-60 in the final for victory in what has become a forgotten event.

Ultimately, the 1973-74 season proved disappointing for Indiana. After reaching the Final Four the previous year, their key contributors returned, but the team failed to return to the NCAA Tournament – a story which could very well differ today if those same Hoosiers had prevailed. Under the current system, Indiana would likely have earned either a #2 seed or a #3 seed. Under the 1975 tournament system, however, IU almost certainly would have received an at-large bid. The 1974 Tournament marked the end of UCLA’s seven consecutive titles when Norm Sloan and NC State upset them in the national semifinal before beating Marquette for the title game. Though UCLA added another title in 1975, IU began their reign as college basketball’s leading program.

I would like to add that for me, no, I do not think Indiana would have won it all in 1974 as North Carolina State was one of the greatest teams ever, but you never know come tournament time and either way, the Hoosiers would have been a legit threat.

1974-75 Season

The Hoosiers opened the 1975 season as one of the top three teams in the country. The first big game of the season would come against Kentucky, and lets just say it was an interesting game!

On December 7, 1974, Indiana and Kentucky met in Bloomington in a regular season game that ended 98-74 for Indiana. Near the end, Indiana coach Bobby Knight went to the Kentucky bench where an official was standing to complain about a call, and before leaving, struck Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall in the back of the head with his left hand. UK assistant coach Lynn Nance–a former FBI agent standing 6 feet 5 inches–had to be restrained by Hall from hitting Knight; later, Hall said, “It publicly humiliated me.”

Knight said he has been doing this “adoringly” to his own players for years but admitted it might not have been everyone’s cup of tea. If Joe disagreed, he offered an apology but didn’t apologize for its intended effect. Knight continued, “Hall and I have been friends a long time”, saying, “if he wants to dissolve our friendship, that’s up to him.” Knight then placed all blame on Hall, noting with characteristic candor: “If it had been malicious intent behind it, then I would’ve bashed them into seats!” Knight added: I am pretty sure that the Indiana vs Kentucky rivalry was put on steroids with this incident.

Indiana Hoosiers finished the regular season with a 29-0 record and won the Big Ten Conference by six games at 18-0. Coming into this season third in polls, they had been top-ranked since January 7. When combined with the next year, Indiana would win 37 straight Big Ten games by an average margin of 22.8 points. However, on February 22nd against Purdue, they suffered an 83-82 win; I say suffered a win because of Scott May’s broken left arm, which happened during an 83-82 victory against Purdue. After the regular season concluded, four starters – May, Steve Green, Kent Benson, and Quinn Buckner – were named to the five-man All-Big Ten team.

The Regional Final against Kentucky

Kentucky had suffered five straight losses to Indiana in this fierce rivalry, but Coach Joe B. Hall ordered them to alter their style of play for this one after Knight slapped him in the back of the head during a December loss. With that loss under their belts, Coach Hall was eager to change things up in anticipation of another revenge-filled matchup between these two titans.

The Wildcats shot quickly on every possession when they had a good look. Senior guard Mike Flynn, a Jeffersonville, Ind. native who had never beaten Indiana before, led the way with 22 points and waved it enthusiastically towards the Indiana fan section after cutting down the nets.

Coach Hall knew Indiana’s half-court defense was formidable, so he encouraged us to come up and shoot as quickly as possible,” Kentucky’s Mike Flynn said. “He let me loose, along with Jimmy Dan (Conner) and Kevin (Grevey). I loved hearing something like that from your coach – just shoot away!” It’s rare you get such encouragement from your coach!

So, in the end, you could say that the 1975 Indiana team lost because of Knight’s actions. He dressed and started May who in no way was ready to play as he scored two points in seven minutes, you had Hall’s gameplan change which Knight did not react to well. That Indiana team doesn’t allow 92 points, but on this night they did.

Kentucky would go on to lose in John Wooden’s last game and you have won wonder if a healthy Indiana would have won it all? I think they would have.

How it all turned out?

My only real what-if from this four-year span is with the Downing foul in 1973 vs UCLA, well, that and the what if George McGinnis had stayed and played?

When it comes to 1975, May got hurt; that is what it is as I can think of a few injuries that have changed the results of games. In the end, maybe the 76 team was so good because of what it went through the previous three years. Maybe what they went through led to them not panicking when star guard Bobby Wilkerson got hurt early on in the 1976 National Championship game against Michigan. Maybe coach Knight learned from the 1975 loss to Kentucky, where he admittedly did not coach his best game.

Either way, if you were old enough to see the mid-70s Hoosiers play, I think it’s safe to say you got to witness the greatest Big Ten basketball team that ever lived, plus that 1976 Hoosiers team was the last undefeated team we have ever seen, that is still pretty cool. Plus, we had a coach that did not cheat, and the players graduated; Bob Knight did not need a used car salesman named Sam Gilbert to buy his players, and yes, that’s a shot at John Wooden!ย  The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers will live on forever, just like their what if’s will also.

Video: NCAA Final Halftime Speech | Perfect in '76

NCAA Final Halftime Speech | Perfect in ’76

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