BOZICH | 1976 Indiana unbeaten champions have never lifted victo - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | 1976 Indiana unbeaten champions have never lifted victory cigars

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The 1976 unbeaten Indiana champs (from left), Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy, Scott May, Jim Crews and Quinn Buckner, have waited for the next member of The Club. The 1976 unbeaten Indiana champs (from left), Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy, Scott May, Jim Crews and Quinn Buckner, have waited for the next member of The Club.
 LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I stopped calling the members of the 1976 Indiana national championship team to ask about the unbeaten thing in 2005.

I believe that was the time when Quinn Buckner, leader of that team, picked up his phone, checked the caller I.D. and answered with a trickle of disdain:

“You already know the answer. It hasn't changed. Why do you keep asking?”

He laughed. I laughed.

Then we talked about other things unfolding in his life with the Indiana Pacers and mine in the media business.

I didn't call Buckner or his teammates last season after Wichita State raced through the college basketball season unbeaten. I did call him last month, but to congratulate him for being voted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, recognition he earned while playing on four IU teams that won 108 games and lost 12.

We talked briefly about Kentucky's hunt for perfection, a hunt that will conclude this weekend in downtown Indianapolis as the Wildcats pursue the final two victories they need to close out a 40-0 season.

I wasn't surprised to hear that Buckner told at least one questioner that he hoped Kentucky finished the job. The man has an appreciation for perfection.

His high school team, Thornridge, won every game by at least 15 points while taking the 1972 Illinois state title. Four years later came the unbeaten season at IU as well as the 1976 Olympic gold medal in Montreal. The 1984 Boston Celtics were not unbeaten, but they did win the NBA title, making Buckner the rarest of basketball species, a champion in high school, college, the NBA and Olympics.

Buckner complimented Kentucky, especially the Wildcats' unrelenting approach to defense. He said he expected the Wildcats to finish the job. He considered them a legitimate applicant to The Unbeaten Club.

But was he hoping that Kentucky stumbled, the way the 1972 Miami Dolphins have often hoisted a celebratory glass when the final unbeaten NFL team loses every fall?

Move along. There's no story here.

I knew the answer. It had not changed. I stopped asking in 2005.

Buckner had never puffed on a victory cigar or even text messaged a teammate after the final team had taken at least one defeat, securing Indiana's position as the last unbeaten (32-0) national champ.

Ditto for his best friend, Scott May, the 1976 player of the year. Add Tom Abernethy, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Jim Crews and most of the other Hoosiers to the list. Believe me, I've tried to squeeze an inflammatory quote from every one of them.

They didn't remember John Wooden's unbeaten UCLA teams pulling against them. Why would they root, root, root against UNLV in 1991, St. Joseph's in 2004, Illinois in 2005 or any other group locked in a pursuit of greatness?

They hadn't. They wouldn't.

No cigars. No champagne. No celebration. In fact, they also did not want to be celebrated for not celebrating. What they achieved in 1976 was enough for them. Always has been.

What they achieved was considerable. You could say they were everybody's Super Bowl. Anything less than a national championship was certain to burn a hole of imperfection into their memories.

Bob Knight, their coach, will tell you the 1975 IU team should have celebrated an unbeaten championship season, too. That team, which also featured Steve Green and John Laskowski, won its first 31 games by an average margin of more than 22 points.

But May broke his left arm late in the season at Purdue. Knight erred by rushing him back into the lineup at the NCAA regional in Dayton and Indiana lost one game short of the Final Four.

They finished 31-1. For most of the off-season, it stung like 1-31.

Knight signaled what he expected from the 1976 team with his schedule. He booked the Hoosiers against UCLA, the program that had won 10 of the 12 previous NCAA titles, including 1975. The game tipped at 11 p.m., one of the early made-for-TV games in the era before the four-letter network.

The game was played in St. Louis. It was all Hoosiers. They won by 20.

So it began. Twice, just like this Kentucky team, the Hoosiers needed overtime to maintain perfection.

They won their first NCAA Tournament game against St. John's, a team they had already defeated in December. Next came a formidable test against C. M. Newton's best Alabama team, which was ranked seventh in the nation. IU won – after trailing with about two minutes to play.

In 1976, the tournament was not seeded. That forced Indiana to win its regional by beating No. 2, the Marquette team that Al McGuire coached to the national title the following season.

The closer the Hoosiers got to the finish line, the better they played. After beating Alabama by five and Marquette by nine, Indiana finished the job in the Final Four by dusting UCLA by 14 and Michigan by 18.

With the Bruins ranked fifth and the Wolverines ninth, Indiana defeated four Top 10 teams the final two weekends.

Now, it is Kentucky's turn. After beating eighth-ranked Notre Dame in Cleveland last weekend, the Wildcats must handle Wisconsin, ranked third, at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday. They figure to get fourth-ranked Duke for the title on Monday night.

If they do that, Quinn Buckner and his teammates will be ready to welcome them to The Undefeated Club.

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