TGS NCAA HOOPS...INDIANA AND KENTUCKY RENEW HOSTILITIES!
While we have often found room to complain about the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, as we did with pleasure once again in our previous issue, we do admit to some admiration for the occasional devilish side displayed by the group, and when it plays a de facto matchmaker role for confrontations that have extra elements beyond two quality teams facing one another.
We recall one such development, during the days when Kentucky would refuse to schedule Louisville in hoops. The selection committee, however, nonetheless tried its darnedest to set up a matchup in the Big Dance. Not straight-away, mind you, but in a possible second-round clash in 1982. In those days, the tourney field consisted of just 48 teams, with the first three seeds in each region given a bye in the first round. One of HC Denny Crum's quality Louisville sides (indeed, one that would progress to the Final Four) was seeded third in the Midwest Regional. It would await the winner of the 6-11 matchup at Nashville between, you guessed it, Kentucky (the sixth seed) and longshot Middle Tennessee State (slotted in the 11 spot). Bluegrass country, and indeed the entirety of the college hoops nation, salivated at the possibility of the Cats and Cards finally tangling on the hardwood.
Few expected the Blue Raiders to triumph and deny a long-awaited matchup between the Wildcats and Cardinals, but Joe B. Hall's UK would instead spit the bit, losing 50-44. College hoops fans were thus denied a chance to finally see Kentucky vs. Louisville, though the committee had tried its best.
(The next year, the Kentucky-Louisville matchup did finally materialize, but not until the Elite Eight in the Mideast Regional at Knoxville, when the Cards would rally late and force overtime before prevailing, 80-68, to head to another Final Four.)
Well, here we are in 2016, and the committee is at it again. With Kentucky, not surprisingly, once more the subject of its handiwork. Only this time it is not a matchup with Louisville (which now plays the Wildcats annually) that the committee was trying to engineer. Instead, it's old enemy Indiana. And after both the Hoosiers and UK would roll in their opening-round games on Thursday, one of college hoops' great rivalries has been revived, if only for 40 minutes, this Saturday in an East Regional second-round clash at Des Moines.
It's been four years since Kentucky and Indiana discontinued an often-angry series that had raged between the hoops-mad universities of the border states that stretched back to the 1920s. In every regular season from 1969-70 thru 2011-12, Indiana and Kentucky would do battle in one of the annual intersectional highlight games. But after the 2011-12 campaign (when the teams would also meet in the Sweet Sixteen), UK refused to continue playing on campus, and Indiana refused any kind of deal that didn't include campus games.
(The Wildcats were also said to be a bit concerned about the "temperature" of the series overheating at the time of the regular-season matchup on December 10, 2011 at Bloomington, when the Hoosiers shocked the Wildcats by a 73-72 score thanks to Christian Watford's last-second triple, triggering a stampede to the Assembly Hall floor which nearly trampled Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman from their courtside ESPN telecast location.)
UK, justifiably concerned about the wild scene at the end of the December, 2011 game, pushed to go back to neutral-site games; indeed, for many years the series alternated between Indianapolis and Louisville. Indiana rebuffed that overture, instead suggesting a four-year deal that included two games at neutral sites and one each in Bloomington and Lexington. Kentucky shook its head and said no, and so the series was put on hiatus, its resumption on indefinite hold until the two sides can agree upon a new deal that might require Henry Kissinger's negotiating skills to form a compromise. Though agitation between the support bases of each has perhaps grown in the absence of games for the past four years.
For us at TGS, however, Indiana vs. Kentucky recalls many memorable clashes, including the occasional NCAA Tourney games, such as in aforementioned 1983, when the Cats would survive a Sweet 16 battle vs. the Hoosiers by a 64-59 count and advance to that Mideast finale vs. Louisville. But no era compared to that when the rivalry reached a fever pitch in the early-to-mid '70s, after Bob Knight arrived at Bloomington. The old "Baron" himself, Adolph Rupp, still coached Kentucky thru the Knight's first IU season of 1971-72, then turned over the reins in Lexington to Joe B. Hall. By time the 1974-75 season rolled around, emotions reached a boiling point.
Hoosiers-Wildcats had already long been one of the most colorful of the non-conference rivalries in college hoops, a December staple that grips 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 by the legendary Bob Hammel, the controversial Knight related an on-air conversation he once had with legendary Cats broadcaster and friend Cawood Ledford that stunned not only Ledford 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, his disdain for former coach Hall was well-documented, stemming in part from an incident in an early-season game during that 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").
Later that season, however, the sides would collide again in the Mideast Regional final at Dayton, the top-ranked Hoosiers unbeaten and riding a 34-game win streak and favored after having routed the Cats, 88-64, in the regular-season game in which Knight and Nance had words after the General's "love tap" to Hall's head. The beatdown had been severe in the first meeting, with IU at one time expanding the lead to 78-44. Moreover, UK's C Rick Robey was overwhelmed by punishing IU soph counterpart Kent Benson, who physically manhandled the UK 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, although the Hoosiers acted as if they could care less when rolling to a 21-point halftime edge and eventual 81-71 win. Meanwhile, the Cats set up the rematch by pulling away late from a stubborn Central Michigan side and its pressing defense, with UK hitting 14 of its last 16 shots to win by a 90-73 count.
Knight himself has often said that 1974-75 side was probably his best-ever at Bloomington. But dame fortune worked against the Hoosiers late in the season when star jr. F Scott May suffered an arm 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. But even without May, they continued to roll and stayed unbeaten through the final weeks of the regular season and into the Big Dance, beating Don Haskins' UTEP in a first-round game at Kentucky's old Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.
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) 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 beet red. In the closing seconds, desperately trying for a steal, the Hoosiers' Wayne Radford was guilty of what today would have been called a flagrant foul against Cat G Conner, who was literally knocked and thrown to the ground beneath the basket. Tempers flared as the teams nearly came to blows as an ensuing scuffle almost carried into the crowd. Radford, however, was only whistled for a common foul that sent Conner to the line for a one-and-one (as all non-shooting fouls would be, until the 1983-84 season, starting with the seventh team foul). Only one second remained, and even when Conner missed, there was no time for Benson to gather the rebound and throw a desperation heave downcourt, which wasn't close and was after time had expired anyway. The Hoosiers got close but could never get ahead and bowed by a 92-90 count.
"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."
Whatever, it was an unforgettable chapter of one of the great rivalries that we will see renewed, if only temporarily, on Saturday.
And for once, we give a big "thank you" to the selection committee!
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