The 1976 Final Four is best remembered for when Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers capped off a perfect season with a national championship. But there were three other stories there too, from UCLA in the post-Wooden era to an upstart from the East to a conference runner-up for the first time. Here’s a look back on the teams of the 1976 Final Four–Indiana, UCLA, Rutgers and Michigan and their roads to Philadelphia.
Indiana had three great players, starting with national Player of the Year Scott May, who averaged nearly 24 ppg. Kent Benson, a future #1 overall pick in the NBA draft scored 17 ppg and held down the middle. Quinn Buckner, who had a long pro career ahead of him, ran the floor.
After rolling to a second straight undefeated regular season and Big Ten title, Knight’s Hoosiers blasted St. John’s to open the 1976 NCAA Tournament, with 33 points from May keying the 90-70 rout. These were the days of just 32 teams in the field, so the victory put Indiana into the Sweet 16.
The road went to Baton Rouge for what was then called the Mideast Regional. It was a stacked bracket. The tournament was not formally seeded, with geographic considerations being paramount. The result was four of the teams in the final regular season Top 10 were all in Louisiana. That included second-ranked Marquette.
Indiana first had to deal with SEC champ Alabama, coached by Knight’s friend and future Olympic assistant C.M. Newton. The Tide gave the Hoosiers the scare of their life, leading by five points late in the game. May, who finished with 25 points/16 rebounds, hit a big jumper and Indiana was able to survive 74-69.
Marquette, coached by the legendary Al McGuire, had gotten past Western Michigan 62-57 in spite of being badly outrebounded. The regional final between the nation’s 1-2 teams was close for a half, and IU led by a point at the break. But McGuire got two technical fouls, and Benson delivered an 18 points/9 rebound effort. May kicked in 15 and the Hoosiers won 65-56.
Benson was named the regional’s Outstanding Player, something I have to take exception with. If you want to give him Player of the Game for the regional final, I get that. But May wasn’t far behind Benson in that game, and May was vastly superior in the Alabama game.
Moreover, it was May’s clutch play in the round of 16 that saved Indiana’s perfect season. If the award is really for the regional weekend as a whole, which its name implies, then Scott May should have gotten the trophy.
The idea of opening the NCAA Tournament up to multiple teams from the same conference was only two years old and Michigan became the first beneficiary, not needing to beat out Indiana in the Big Ten race.
Michigan was coached by Johnny Orr, who had won a Big Ten crown here in 1974, and had an offense that combined both explosiveness and balance. Rickey Green led the way with 20 ppg. Phil Hubbard and John Robinson controlled the interior and scored a combined 29 ppg. Wayman Britt and Steve Grote were also double-digit scorers.
The Wolverines were sent to the Midwest Regional where they barely survived Wichita State, escaping 74-73, as Green struggled to a 4-for-17 shooting game. But they were on their way to Louisville, where Notre Dame, Missouri and Texas Tech would join them.
Michigan and Notre Dame hadn’t yet renewed their football rivalry yet–that would be two years later. So this Sweet 16 game would have to do, and it was a good one. The Irish got 31 from All-American and future NBA scoring machine Adrian Dantley. But Michigan got 20 from Green, with the rest of the starting lineup all in double figures and they won 80-76.
Missouri’s Willie Smith electrified the other regional semi, dropping 30 on Texas Tech to key an 86-75 win. And Smith didn’t stop in the final, pouring in 43 points on the Wolverines. Michigan again answered with balance–Green had 23, Robinson hit 21 and Hubbard scored 20. Smith took home the region’s Outstanding Player award, but with a 95-88 win, the Wolverines took home a Final Four trip.
Gene Bartow had the unenviable task of replacing John Wooden, who had retired after his 10th national championship in 12 years in 1975. The Bruins were carried by All-American Richard Washington and his 21 ppg, along with prolific scorer Marques Johnson, who had 17 ppg. But there wasn’t any depth in scoring to back them up. Andre McCarter was a nice floor leader, but UCLA didn’t look unstoppable as they won the Pac-8.
The geographic emphasis of the regional brackets meant that UCLA had, as they always did in the Wooden years, a distinct advantage given the weakness of basketball in the west. The Bruins got 25 from Washington and 19 from Johnson in dispatching San Diego State 74-64 to reach a regional round that would be at home for them in Los Angeles.
UCLA churned out an efficient 70-61 win over Pepperdine in the round of 16. Basketball fans were eyeing a potential changing-of-the-guard battle with third-ranked UNLV in the regional final. Jerry Tarkanian had the Rebel program on the move upward and they looked ready to challenge the Bruins.
But UNLV didn’t get that chance. An electrifying game with Arizona went to overtime and it was the Wildcats who got a 114-109 win. Six players overall scored 20-plus points and two more had 18. Herm Harris led everyone with 31.
Arizona didn’t have much left for UCLA–this was a non-conference game then, with Arizona and Arizona State not having joined up with the Pac-8 yet. Richard Washington again had an excellent game, a 22/10 line, as he locked up Outstanding Player in an 82-66 win.
The historic legacy of Indiana’s 1976 season leads us to forget that Rutgers also came into the Final Four undefeated. Phil Sellers, a second-team All-American, averaged 19 ppg, as did Mike Dabney. Eddie Jordan and Hollis Copeland were each double-digit scorers.
Rutgers had to survive against Princeton in the opening round, shooting just 38 percent. Jordan saved them with 16 points and the Scarlet Knights escaped 54-53. The East regional would be in Greensboro, and it would be the softest of the four–none of VMI, DePaul or UConn were ranked among the 16 best teams in the country in the final regular season poll.
The Scarlet Knights played defense against UConn in the Sweet 16, holding the Huskies to 41 percent shooting and all five starters scoring from 14-19 points. Rutgers won 93-79, while VMI nipped DePaul in overtime by forcing Blue Demon center and future pro Dave Corzine into a 6-for-15 shooting night.
Dabney and Jordan took over the regional final, each scoring 23 points. VMI’s Will Bynum, fresh off his 34-point game against DePaul, came up with 22 more here, but he didn’t have help, while Rutgers had plenty. They won 91-75 and punched their ticket to nearby Philly, with Jordan bringing home MOP honors.
THE 1976 FINAL FOUR
Phil Sellers didn’t have a vintage NCAA Tournament and it continued in the national semifinal against Michigan. The Wolverines forced Sellers into a 5-for-13 game, and Rutgers shot 39 percent as a team. Hubbard and Robinson controlled the boards for Michigan and they won 86-70.
The showcase game was Indiana-UCLA, although “showcase” wasn’t defined quite as clearly as it is today, when CBS picks which Saturday game they want to show in the 8:47 PM ET slot. The changing-of-the-guard moment wasn’t all that dramatic–Bobby Wilkerson hauled in 19 rebounds for Indiana and they won comfortably, 65-51.
For the first time ever, we had two conference rivals playing for the national championship. The final score shows Indiana’s 86-68 win, and it might be easy to look at that, along with the perfect season and assume the result was a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t–Wilkerson went out with a concussion and Michigan led 35-29 at the half.
But the Wolverines couldn’t get Hubbard and Robinson unleashed down low, while May and Benson took over. May went for 26/8, while Benson added a 25/9 night. Buckner, not normally a scorer, popped in 16 points and grabbed eight more rebounds, and Indiana pulled away into history.