BOZICH | Indiana celebrates unbeaten 1976 NCAA champs and beating Wisconsin
Bob Knight did not show up, but nine players from Indiana's 1976 NCAA unbeaten champs did -- to celebrate that achievement and watch the Hoosiers defeat Wisconsin Tuesday in Bloomington.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – For the Indiana University basketball program when there is joy there is also consternation. When there is celebration, there is drama.
Usually on the same day.
On a night when Indiana honored the last unbeaten champions of college basketball for what they achieved 40 years ago, the celebration did not include Bob Knight, the unyielding coach who put that team together.
Put that in the scorebook as a coach’s decision. IU athletic director Fred Glass crafted a hand-written invitation and sent it to Knight.
“I thought he deserved a special invitation so he didn’t just get something in the mail that said ‘Save the Date’ like the rest of the guys,” Glass said.
Nothing. None. Not even a sarcastic “No.”
Maybe some day Knight will return to Assembly Hall. But if a moment like this didn't melt the frost that has existed between the Hall of Fame coach and the university where he won three NCAA titles, I say nothing will. Indiana asked him politely, respectfully and sincerely, as it has several times, The man turned 75 in late October. He's been away for 15 years but Bob Knight's anger was always industrial strength.Too bad.
Good thing that Scott May, the star of that unflappable 32-0 team, listened to his sons, Sean and Scott Jr. During a New Year’s visit to Chapel Hill, N.C. last week, the May brothers talked their father into thinking bigger than any issues and making his first visit to Assembly Hall in more than a decade.
He celebrated with eight teammates, including the other four starters. Sons enjoyed it more than Dad. “He’s loving it,” Sean May said. “He’s having the time of his life.”
“Fans want to know, ‘What did it feel like when you won the championship and go undefeated?’ “ said Kent Benson, who played center during that perfect season.
“We’ve gotten to re-live that every day for the last 40 years. So it’s been like it happened just yesterday. It’s been a tremendous honor, it’s humbling.”
Oh. There was also an important Big Ten basketball game at Assembly Hall Tuesday night.
On an evening when the Hoosiers out-gritted Wisconsin, 59-58, to become the first Big Ten team to start 3-0, the current players had to process the jarring news that James Blackmon Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer, will not play another minute this season.
Knee surgery, Blackmon’s third in four years, is the reason. Tom Crean, the IU coach, will have to mix and match with his undersized roster to replace Blackmon’s perimeter game.
Crean did that well against the Badgers. The Hoosiers made their free throws (10 for 10), forced Wisconsin to shoot less than 42 percent, survived a 15-0 Wisconsin run and outscored the Badgers from the bench, 21-8. Crean gave many of Blackmon’s minutes to freshman O.G. Anunoby.
Never heard of him? Neither did most of the recruiting gurus.
Anunoby was ranked the No. 280 recruit nationally in the 24/7 Sports composite rankings for the Class of 2015. All he did against the Badgers was make all three of his three-point shots as well as a pair of free throws, scoring 11 points in 17 solid minutes.
Sprinkle in 19 points from Yogi Ferrell as well as 10 points and 7 boards from freshman center Thomas Bryant. Indiana rallied from a nine-point first half hole to add another league victory to the pair they grabbed on the road with Rutgers and Nebraska last week.
“I think about that (1976 team) every time I walk into Cook Hall,” Bryant said. “That’s an unbelievable thing to do. We got to pick up a win with those guys (the 1976 team) watching.”
Nine of them – May, Benson, Quinn Buckner, Tom Abernethy, Bobby Wilkerson, Scott Eells, Wayne Radford, Jim Crews and Jim Roberson – sat behind the IU bench. Three others – Jimmy Wisman, Bob Bender and Rich Valavicius – had conflicts and missed the moment. One, Mark Haymore, passed away in 2004 and was represented by his family.
As good as that team was – and the Hoosiers were named the “NCAA’s All-Time March Madness team” in 2013 – they had several victories as tight as the one that Crean’s team delivered against the Badgers.
But they refused to falter – winning twice in overtime (Kentucky, Michigan) and three times by three points or less. They were not as overpowering as the Hoosiers had been one season earlier, but four decades later no team, not North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, UConn, has achieved what that group achieved.
No wonder IU announced Tuesday night that the five starters will be honored with a statue when the renovated Assembly Hall opens next fall.
The more they won, the more they were expected to win, taking down five teams ranked in the Top 20 during the NCAA Tournament. Considering the Hoosiers went 31-1 one season earlier and that nothing less than a national championship would satisfy both fans, skeptics and their taskmaster coach, emotion ruled when Indiana dispatched Michigan, 86-68, in the 1976 title game in Philadelphia.
“To go through it and have the kind of success that we had, there was jubilation,” Buckner said. “There was relief.
“The biggest part of that, that I liked was to see the smile on coach Knight’s face. We didn’t see that very often. So you know it’s a memorable moment.”
“We had fallen short the year before,” May said. “To go through the season that we had and almost getting beat a few times, to not quit, to not lose, to be down at half in the Michigan game and come in the second half and just beat the (stuffing) out of them … it was like mission accomplished. We had worked so hard and come a long way. It was just a great feeling for me.”
A great feeling that May nearly missed.
But unlike his coach, May was willing to listen to an opposing opinion and return to a venue that some feared he would never visit again. Credit the persistence of his sons. They talked. They reasoned. They insisted.
May drew one of the loudest ovations when he was the final player introduced. The only louder and more sustained applause was for Knight, whose picture was flashed on the videoboard. Glass said the door is always open for the former coach -- just as it is for all the former players, like May.
“He wasn’t going to come,” said Sean May. “I said, ‘Dad, you know what? It’s not about you. It’s about those 13 other guys that were on that team.’
“Obviously coach Knight being here was a big reason he felt that if they were going to celebrate this team they should do it with Coach Knight there. He put this team together.
“But just being here, being able to reminisce, the stories and then talk. These guys have their own lives and are doing separate things now. But you get them in this room, it’s like they’re 22 and back on this campus again. Forty years later and we’re still talking about them.”
They talked about May and Buckner and Benson and Wilkerson and Abernethy and Ferrell and Blackmon and Anunoby Tuesday night. It was a night they’ll keep talking about at Indiana.
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