The topic of the GOAT comes up in sports constantly. And since we are right before the start of March Madness, I thought this would be a great time to broach the subject. I have to admit that I’m a Hoosier, and I grew up an Indiana basketball fan. So yes, I’m probably a little biased. OK, a lot.
Let me explain.
I am going to touch on this subject today because I just saw a commercial for an old ESPN hit piece – an ESPN 30 for 30 that came out a few years ago. The network spent 60-90 minutes attacking Bob Knight. I’m sure you have seen the Jeremy Schaap interview. ESPN will try to portray coach Knight as an out-of-control madman. To me, that is sad. But don’t get me wrong, biased or not, there were moments during Knight’s career where even I didn’t know why he did certain things.
If ESPN looked at Knight’s legendary career fairly, maybe they’d do a program on how Knight graduated almost every player he had for 30 years. Maybe they could focus on the fact that Indiana was never put on probation during his tenure. Or perhaps he won three National titles with lesser talent. The fact is Knight tried to recruit high-character players who fit into the style of basketball that he wanted to play. What makes the 1976 team the greatest? The 1976 Hoosiers played exactly the style Knight wanted for 32 straight games, and they were unbeatable doing it.
Before we get onto why the 1976 team is the greatest, I would like to suggest to ESPN that if you want to cover something in depth – maybe talk about Adolph Rupp, who cheated constantly. He was also a racist. How about John Wooden and Sam Gilbert and the cheating that ran rampant at UCLA? I could go on and on with better vehicles for 30 for 30 episodes, but we all know that ESPN has turned into a political vehicle that is tied to sports.
The consensus is yes. The 75 Hoosiers went undefeated and dominated their games, winning by an average of 24 points. The Hoosiers eventually would lose 92-90 in a regional final to the Kentucky Wildcats. The reason for the loss was terrible luck. The Hoosiers played the tournament with a very limited Scott May, who had broken his arm. Think about this. If May doesn’t get hurt, IU probably plays in the championship game against John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. If May were healthy, the Hoosiers likely would have won the game. They were more talented and better coached than the Bruins.
The Hoosiers had a lofty goal in 1976. Not only were they determined to win the Big Ten and a National Championship, but they also wanted to go undefeated. The team had a head start on the rest of the college basketball world as they stayed on campus through the summer and played daily.
The determination would not be a problem with this team.
Indiana played a preseason exhibition against the Soviet national team. They convincingly beat the reigning world champions by 94–78. The Soviet squad included two stars from their 1972 gold medal team-Aleksandr Belov and Sergei Belov. The game was played before a sellout crowd of 17,377 at the new (now-defunct) Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Scott May scored 34 points on a fantastic 13-for-15 shooting.
The Hoosiers began their year against the defending national champion UCLA Bruins. The game was over before it started, as the Hoosiers looked like men, and the Bruins looked like boys. They dismantled the Bruins by 20 points and let the nation know why they (the Hoosiers) were ranked the number-one team in the country.
The Hoosiers used the same starting lineup for 26 of their 32 games during the season. May and Tom Abernethy were the forwards, Kent Benson started at center and Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson led the backcourt. They were the perfect five guys to run Knight’s motion offense. May was an excellent player, but for the most part, they were a well-coached team that played the way they were instructed.
During the early part of the season, the Hoosiers had some close calls, including an overtime win over Kentucky and a three-point victory over Notre Dame. The Hoosiers started the 1976 Big Ten season with nine straight wins, but unlike 1975, most of these games were competitive. Then came the matchup at Assembly Hall with Michigan. It didn’t look good. The undefeated dream was about to die. IU trailed 60-58 with 10 seconds remaining. Buckner drove to the right for a jump shot. His shot bounced off the rim. Reserve guard Jim Crews missed on a follow. Benson, Wilkerson, and May hovered near the basket. Benson tipped the ball in as time expired. Crews ability to keep the ball alive and get it to the front of the rim saved the perfect season.
In 1976 the Tournament was not seeded the way it is today. The Hoosiers faced a difficult road to the final four. In the first game, Indiana beat No. 18 St. John’s 90–70, with Scott May scoring 33 points.
In the regional semifinals, they beat No. 7 Alabama 74–69 behind the play of May (25 points, 16 rebounds). Alabama led 69–68 when May hit a jump shot with 2:02 left. At the time, coach Knight called this Alabama team the best of any of his teams they had faced. The regional finals would not be any easier as the Hoosiers faced the second-ranked Marquette Warriors, coached by Al McGuire, who would be crowned national champions in 1977. McGuire attempted to contain May by using a box-and-one defense. May scored 15 points and sat out 13 minutes with foul problems. Marquette was 27–2 on the year. The Hoosiers still won by a score of 66-55. They had earned a spot in the final four in Philadelphia.
In the final four, the Hoosiers would again match up with the UCLA Bruins, who ranked No. 5 with a 27–3 record. The Hoosiers won 65–51 behind 19 rebounds from 6′7″ inch guard Wilkerson and strong play from Abernethy.
The Hoosiers were now one win away from a perfect season. They had to defeat the Michigan Wolverines, ranked No. 7 in the country. Michigan led by six at halftime. The Hoosiers ultimately prevailed 86–68 behind May’s 26 points. Buckner chipped in with 16, and Benson, named the outstanding player in the tournament, scored 25.
I know some people look at teams like Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins and say the Hoosiers wouldn’t be able to match up with them. But this Hoosiers team had intangibles. I think it’s very likely they would have beaten any team they played. They had the greatest coach of all time in Knight, who knew exactly which buttons to push to get his players to play at their absolute best. They had outstanding on-court leadership from guard Buckner and a veteran leader like May.
Most importantly, I think they were the best because they were unselfish and nobody cared who the star was. So when you’re done watching the ESPN hit piece on Knight, immediately flip on the Showtime documentary ‘Perfect in 1976.’ You’ll see the real Knight, how he feels about his players today, and more importantly, how his players feel about him.
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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