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TGS SWEET 16 PREVIEW...AND CHASING PERFECTION AT KENTUCKY
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We've been publishing TGS since 1957, and have seen lots of legendary college basketball powerhouses for the past six decades. But it's been a while since we've seen a team with such a legitimate shot at finishing a college hoops season unbeaten as this year's Kentucky Wildcats, who take a 36-0 record into this week's Midwest Regional in Cleveland. Coming immediately to mind as the most recent of those would be Jerry Tarkanian's 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, whose undefeated run lasted all the way into the Final Four at Indianapolis before being upset in the national semifinals by Duke, 79-77.

But the last team to actually go through a season unbeaten was Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana side, which happened to be the second straight Hoosier edition to take a spotless straight-up mark into the Sweet 16. Indeed, there are still many hoop aficionados, including Knight himself, who believe the previous year's team in 1975 might have been the better of those IU heavyweights. But the old Mideast Regional would prove the roadblock for that Hoosier powerhouse, as it almost was again the next year in '76.

It is worth remembering that when the Hoosiers pitched their perfect game almost 40 years ago, there was much less of the numbing parity that has overtaken the college game today. It had been only three seasons since an undefeated UCLA team had won the national championship--something the Bruins accomplished four times under coach John Wooden--and it would take only three more years for Larry Bird's team at Indiana State to make it all the way to the NCAA title game undefeated, before losing to Michigan State 75-64. (If the freshman Bird hadn't fled IU in 1974 to go home to French Lick, Ind., it's unlikely the '76 Hoosier team would have been overshadowed by any other.)

There have been several great college teams since 1976, but in the past 39 years, no other team has done what Knight's IU accomplished. Moreover, it may be that no team has ever accomplished as much with as big a bull's-eye painted on its chest. Unlike the previous year's IU team, which had blossomed into greatness after the season commenced, or the current Kentucky edition, which at least needed a few games in November before assuming the top spot in the polls, the '75-76 Hoosiers started the season at No. 1 and then defended their position the entire campaign in a rare wire-to-wire win.

(We find Kentucky's current challenge to that IU unbeaten mark as amusing on another front, as Knight has made no secret of his disdain for current Wildcat HC John Calipari, whose methods and ethics have long run afoul of "The General" himself. We are assuming that Knight is going to be asked soon to speak about Kentucky and Calipari, challenging the unbeaten mark of Knight's '76 team. Don't be surprised at whatever Knight might say!)

Still, we're not sure if we've seen a team impress as much in a regular season as Knight's previous 1974-75 IU edition. Deep into that campaign, the Hoosiers not only maintained a perfect record but had the widest average victory margin in the land at a staggering 27 points per game, far beyond the current Kentucky edition. They also had the sixth best offense, the 12th best defense, and a .520 shooting percentage. The names on Knight's roster--Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Bob Wilkerson, Steve Green--were becoming familiar to the national audience, as rarely had a team dismembered opposition in such a manner. All the more impressive since IU was toying with a competitive Big Ten after rolling through a challenging pre-league slate that included Notre Dame, Kentucky, and Kansas.

Entering the Big Dance unbeaten, and after romping past Don Haskins' UTEP by a 78-53 count in a first-round game at Kentucky's old Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, IU moved to the Mideast Regional at the same University of Dayton Arena (then only five years old) that would eventually host the NCAA's "First Four" games decades later. A rematch with Big Blue from Lexington was shaping up in the Elite Eight if both could avoid upsets in the Sweet 16. Which both IU and UK did without much trouble, Knight's Hoosiers rolling to a big 21-point halftime edge and coasting home against Oregon State, 81-71, while Joe B. Hall's Wildcats would finally solve Central Michigan's pressing defense and hit 14 of their last 16 shots from the floor in an eventual 90-73 win.

Hoosiers-Wildcats had long been one of the most colorful of the non-conference rivalries in college hoops, a December staple that gripped fans in each of those hoop-crazed states. Although none other than Bob Knight was a bit cool on the IU-UK battles that would endure through his tenure at Bloomington. In the excellent biography Knight, written in conjunction with the well-respected Bob Hammel, The General related an on-air conversation he once had with legendary Cats broadcaster and friend Cawood Ledford that stunned not only Ledford also but some fans when the General said he wasn't all that enamored with the hoopla surrounding Hoosiers-Wildcats. "Because of all of the things going on down here (UK), I didn't care for the rivalry as much as he (Ledford) thought I did," said the coach.

Of course, Knight's disdain for Kentucky HC Hall was well-documented, stemming in part from an incident in an early-season game during the 1974-75 campaign in which Knight and Hall's assistant Lynn Nance exchanged angry words after The General had given Hall a "tap" on the head at the end of a late-game sideline discussion (Nance obviously taking offense at the Knight "gesture").

Knight, however, would insist that the "tap" of Hall's head was nothing more than a friendly pat. A normal, meaningless gesture, according to Knight. "If it was meant to be malicious," said The General, "I would have blasted the ----er into the seats."

The Indiana beatdown of Big Blue in the regular-season meeting had been severe. The Hoosiers romped, 88-64, with IU at one time expanding the lead to 78-44. Moreover, UK's C Rick Robey was overwhelmed by punishing IU soph counterpart Benson, who physically manhandled the Cat frosh. But Robey learned from the experience. "I found out a lot from Benson," said Robey in Dayton. "I learned not to give a lot of little cheap shots, but to save up for one big one." More kerosene was added to the looming battle in the Elite Eight when none other than Hall predicted that Ralph Miller's Oregon State would upset Indiana in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

Dame fortune, however, had worked against the Hoosiers late in that regular season when star F May suffered a wrist injury in a mid-February game at Purdue. The top-ranked Hoosiers, who had been dismembering opposition to that point, suddenly looked mortal when hanging on for a 1-point win over the Boilermakers, with May sidelined for the second half. Still, they continued to roll and stayed unbeaten through the final weeks of the regular season and into the Sweet 16.

May's absence, however, had caused Knight no shortage of consternation as he grappled with the best way to replace his star performer in the starting lineup. Knight decided to go with sixth man John Laskowski, an outstanding shooter but limited defender. The General later related his dilemma to Hammel in Knight.

"Playing Laskowski meant we had to make changes in our defense that wouldn't have been needed if we had just replaced May with the man who was a starter for us the next year, Tom Abernethy," Knight growled. "Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson were the best pair of defensive guards I've ever seen in college basketball, but with Laskowski in the lineup we had to put Wilkerson on a forward, and that broke up the Buckner-Wilkerson combination. With Abernethy, we wouldn't have had to do that. It was my mistake, nobody else's, and I believe I cost us a chance to win the NCAA championship."

May had been cleared to play just before the regional final, but was ineffective and inconsequential in a token appearance off the bench vs. UK. Sensing that Indiana might be a bit vulnerable on the stop end with Laskowski, Hall simply ordered his players to run and shoot vs. the Hoosiers. "If you miss the first five (shots)," said Hall to his troops, "take five more."

With Gs Mike Flynn (who scored 22 points) and Jimmy Dan Conner (who added 17), plus sharpshooting F Kevin Grevey (who added 17 more points) and a productive bench led by frosh Jack Givens, the Cats were running like the thoroughbreds at Keeneland. Meanwhile, Robey, along with fellow bigs Mike Phillips (another frosh C who used to frequent Keeneland with Robey) and rugged forwards Bob Guyette and Danny Hall, were able to trade shoves and elbows with the raging redhead Benson, who nonetheless contributed 33 points and 23 rebounds in a furious performance. But IU fell behind and could never catch up, flustered further by a succession of illegal-screen calls in the second half that turned Knight's face a scarlet red to match the IU uniforms. The Hoosiers got close, but never closer than two in the final seconds, which preceded a near-riot precipitated by Hoosier reserve Wayne Radford when he laid a malicious foul on UK's Conner, who went sprawling into the stands behind the basket before retaliating. When order was restored, Conner would miss the front end of the 1-and-1, but with only one second remaining, there was no time for Benson to do anything with the rebound other than fling a harmless shot about three-quarters of the way down the court. IU could never get ahead and bowed by a 92-90 count, the undefeated season up in smoke, and Knight brusquely leaving the floor without shaking the hand of adversary Hall.

"Our defense just wasn't good enough," said The General to Hammel in Knight>. "The best team I ever had was eliminated by Kentucky. We'll never know, but I don't think it would have happened if I had kept Buckner and Wilkerson together."

Indiana was back the next year with almost the same cast of characters, save the graduated Steve Green and super-sub John Laskowski, and, as mentioned, was ranked first in the nation from the outset of the campaign, when the Hoosiers trampled defending national champ UCLA at St. Louis, 84-64, in Gene Bartow's first game as Bruins coach after replacing John Wooden.

But the ride was not quite as smooth in 1975-76, as there followed a pair of desultory performances (both victories, nonetheless) against detested rivals Notre Dame (63-60) and Kentucky (77-68), the latter victory coming only after a loose ball that had been batted into the air by Benson sailed above the rim and through the basket to tie the game and send it into overtime.

The Hoosiers would be pushed to overtime once more that season against Michigan on Feb. 7, needing a last-second tip-in by Benson to force the extra five minutes after trailing throughout vs. Johnny Orr's Wolverines, who featured a frosh phenom, F Phil Hubbard. IU of '76 would win nine of its games by 11 points or fewer. The average margin of victory was 17.2 points, much less than the 22.3-point average margin of the season before. Whereas the '75 team was so dominating that it never trailed at halftime, the '76 team was in trouble a lot more, falling behind five times in an eight-game stretch during January and February.

Still, Indiana would enter the Big Dance as an unbeaten for the second straight year, though the Mideast Regional at Baton Rouge loomed as a stiff challenge. Awaiting in the Sweet 16 would be C.M. Newton's SEC champ Alabama, likely followed by the nation's second-ranked team, Al McGuire's Marquette, in the Elite Eight.

The Mideast that season was by far the strongest of the NCAA's four regionals, and Indiana fans might have wondered if the draw was rigged against their team. And the challenge offered by the Crimson Tide in the Sweet 16 almost derailed the unbeaten Indiana express.

Alabama loomed as a definite threat. Its big man, Leon Douglas, was fresh from dismantling North Carolina's Mitch Kupchak in the previous week's first-round action, and the Crimson Tide looked bigger and faster at almost every position. "We might be the first team that has matched up against Indiana so well," said assistant coach Wendell Hudson. "And we're going to be motivated."

Knight was not caught off guard and adjusted from his normal crabby defensive philosophy that ganged up on the perimeter, instead sagging into middle to prevent Douglas from dominating. Alabama's guards had mostly free access and open shots while Douglas was being tied in knots, the way Jimmy Young would fluster Muhammad Ali in the heavyweight title fight at the old Cap Center in Landover, Maryland a few weeks later. The Tide hit only 33% from the floor in the first half, when Indiana would mount as much as a 12-point lead, which it would achieve again with six minutes gone in the second half.

It was heavy-duty work suppressing Douglas, however, and Benson would soon pick up his fourth foul at the 13:23 mark. With Benson sidelined, Bama made its move. By the time the big Hoosier returned to the floor six minutes later, the Tide had cut the lead to four.

Bama continued to apply pressure, and if not for a controversial whistle at the 5:11 mark might have been able to change college hoops history. With IU clinging to a 67-65 lead, Douglas wound up on the front end of a fast break. With Benson looming before him. Leon put down his head, Benson put down his shoulder, and legendary ref Booker Turner (known for a controversial call or two in his career), upcourt and nearer to the dressing rooms than the play, raised his arm...charging foul on Douglas! While they moaned in Tuscaloosa, Benson was reprieved...from not only fouling out, but returning to the bench, where an irate Knight would have been waiting.

The Tide was not finished, however. Freshman Keith McCord gave Bama a short-lived 69-68 lead just under the four-minute mark, but that was all the points the Tide would score. May hit a clutch jumper with two minutes remaining to put the Hoosiers ahead. Perhaps frustrated by his constant harassment, Douglas subsequently missed two free throws and put up a couple of shots that might have ended up in adjacent Tiger Stadium were it not for the backboard getting in the way. McCord stumbled away Alabama's final chance with an awkward turnover, and May would hit the clinching free throws. Final score 74-69 in Indiana's favor!

Knight knew that his team had dodged the proverbial bullet, and would later recount his sideline instructions during a late timeout, as recorded by Hammel in Knight.

"They're going to want to go to Douglas," said Knight to his team. "Now Bennie (Benson), I don't want Douglas to get the ball. In fact, Bennie, if Douglas so much as touches the ball this trip, just start running through that door down there because I'm going to run your butt all the way back to Bloomington."

Knight, however, noticed that his star guard Quinn Buckner had pulled Benson aside once the team returned to the court, and wondered what Buckner might have said. In the locker room after the win, Knight was still curious and had to ask Buckner what he told Benson. The senior guard, with only a couple of more games to play for Knight, ignored his coach. He wasn't going to say. So The General, his curiosity even more piqued, decided to ask Benson what Buckner told him.

"Bennie was a junior," said Knight. "He had to tell me."

Benson eagerly obliged. "Coach," said Benson, "you remember what you told me at the time-out about Douglas and running back to Bloomington and..."

"Sure, I remember,"
said Knight. "I want to know what Buckner said!"

"Well," blurted Benson, "Quinn said, 'I don't want to see Douglas get the ball, either, and if he does, we'll have your butt before he can get off the bench.'" And on that crucial possession, Douglas indeed didn't touch the ball.

The showdown vs. number two Marquette, led by Gs Lloyd Walton and Butch Lee, and frontliners Bo Ellis, Earl Tatum, and Jerome Whitehead, would follow on Saturday. As against Alabama, Knight's Hoosiers would bolt to an early lead, but again fouls to a key player, in this case May instead of Benson, would allow the then-called Warriors to make a move.

But Marquette would be effectively hindered by none other than its coach, the flamboyant McGuire. With 12:54 remaining and his Warriors trailing 48-41, McGuire berated ref Jack Ditty and kicked the scorer's table. Indiana converted the ensuing technical and, of course, had possession of the ball. Slowing the pace, the Hoosiers spread the court and forced Marquette from its preferred zone defense.

Still, the Warriors did not surrender, clawing back within three with only 25 seconds remaining. But McGuire, still infuriated at the referees, could not keep composed, begging for another technical, to which the refs obliged. The Hoosiers scored eight points in the final seconds, mushrooming the final score to a misleading 65-56. Whatever, the danger had been averted, and Indiana would have less trouble vs. either UCLA, already beaten in the season opener, or in another rematch vs. Big Ten rival Michigan in the title game, the following week in the Final Four at the Philadelphia Spectrum.

The Sweet 16 and Alabama, however, almost got those unbeaten Hoosiers. Can West Virginia stop Kentucky in this week's Sweet 16 battle in the Midwest Regional at Cleveland? Read our college forecast to see what we think about that matchup and other Big Dance battles on tap this Thursday and Friday!

SWEET SIXTEEN & ELITE EIGHT ON DECK!


Interestingly, dogs have continued to perform well in the Sweet 16, extremely so over the past two seasons, with the "short" covering in six of eight chances each of the past two years. When combined with underdogs standing 5-3 vs. the points in the Elite Eight since 2013, the dogs have indeed been barking in the corresponding regionals weekend the past two seasons, covering 17 of 24 chances.

Following are spread breakdowns in Sweet 16 and Elite Eight action since 1998, with 2013-14 performance noted in ( ).

SWEET SIXTEEN FAVORITES

Spread category W-L

1-3 points... 19-19 (1-4)

3½-6½... 19-27 (3-5)

7-9½... 16-13 (0-1)

10 or more... 6-11 (0-2)

Total... 60-70 (4-12)


Spread record by conference since 1998: American 1-1 (1-1), ACC 16-17-1 (2-1), Atlantic Sun 1-0 (1-0), Atlantic-10 12-9-2 (1-1), Big East 17-25 (2-1), Big Ten 20-21 (2-5), Big XII 17-15 (0-3), CAA 2-0 (1-0), C-USA 5-3, Horizon 3-2 (1-0), MAC 2-1 (1-0), Mid-Continent 1-0, MVC 2-4 (1-0), Mountain West 1-3 (1-0), Pac-12 12-18 (2-3), SEC 19-12 (3-1), SoCon 1-0 (0-0), Sun Belt 1-0 (0-0), WAC 2-1 (0-0), West Coast 2-4 (0-0).

ELITE EIGHT FAVORITES

Spread category W-L

1-3 points... 8-14 (1-1)

3½ - 6½... 13-14 (2-3)

7-9½... 4-6 (0-0)

10 or more... 1-3 (0-1)

Total... 26-37 (3-5)


Spread record by conference since 1998: American 1-0 (1-0), ACC 8-9 (0-1), Atlantic-10 4-2 (1-0), Big East 11-11 (2-1), Big Ten 14-7 (2-3), Big XII 5-16 (0-0), CAA 2-0 (0-0), C-USA 2-3 (0-0), Horizon 2-0 (0-0), Pac-12 7-7 (0-1), SEC 10-7 (1-2), SoCon 1-0 (0-0), WAC 1-1 (0-0), West Coast 1-0 (0-0).


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