The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, led by fiery head coach Bob Knight, were hungry for a championship that the bad luck of sports had denied them one year earlier. The 1975 team, one Knight always believed was the best he’d ever coached had rolled through the regular season undefeated, but All-American power forward Scott May broke his arm late in the season and Indiana lost a 92-90 heartbreaker to Kentucky in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Indiana wasn’t as dominant in the season that got rolling in earnest in December of 1975. They held off Notre Dame in a three-point win and went to overtime for a win over Kentucky. The Irish would be a Top 10 team, but the Wildcats were starting a season that would result in them missing the NCAA Tournament, so that narrow escape was a sign that Knight’s team would be beatable. St. John’s, coached by a future Hall of Famer in Lou Carnesecca took the Hoosiers to the wire. Most alarming was the Big Ten opener against a terrible Ohio State team when IU had to pull out a 66-64 win.
The next game would come in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was a national power and the pre-eminent challenger to Indiana in the Big Ten. Indeed, the Wolverines were just a year away from a team that would conclude the regular season ranked #1 in the country. Indiana had to play its best game and they did, with Kent Benson scoring 33 points to lead the way to a six-point win.
Benson was one of four first-round draft picks in the Indiana starting lineup. Three of them—May, point guard Quinn Buckner and swingman Bobby Wilkerson were seniors and chose in the top 11 of the ensuing spring’s NBA draft. Benson was a junior and one year later would be the first overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks, re-uniting him with Buckner at the pro level.
Those four, along with forward Tom Abernathy, comprised a lineup that was big, as Buckner led a quartet that was all 6’6” or taller. It was also a team with a weak bench, and these five had to carry the load.
Indiana’s brushes with danger continued, as they fell behind Michigan by ten points in the Wolverines’ return trip before rallying to win in overtime. And as IU sewed up the Big Ten crown down the stretch, they trailed at halftime against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota before rallying to win. They closed the regular season undefeated and ranked #1, but there was nothing suggesting that a national title was a foregone conclusion as the tournament opened.
The NCAA Tournament was a 32-team affair so Indiana had only one game to win in the first segment of the bracket and that was a rematch with St. John’s in Dayton. This one ended decisively, 90-70 for Knight’s team and they headed to Baton Rouge for the Sweet 16.
There were few coaches that Knight respected more than Alabama’s C.M Newton, so much so that the Tide mentor was Knight’s choice to be his #1 assistant on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that was the greatest amateur team ever assembled. So there was no way Indiana would be overlooking Alabama in their regional semi-final. May, the National Player of the Year, played his best game of the tournament with 25 points and 16 rebounds to key a five-point win.
Next up was Marquette, coached by its own legend in Al McGuire. In a few short years this matchup would not be allowed to happen at this point in the bracket. Marquette was ranked second nationally, but in 1976 the emphasis was still on geographic cohesion, so Midwestern teams went to the Midwest regional. Hard to argue with the logic, but it’s certainly better for the fans to have the field more appropriately seeded today.
Indiana’s defense came out tough and held Marquette to 37 percent shooting and was able to open up a tight game in the second half and win 65-56. Indiana was going to the Final Four for the second time in Knight’s tenure—the first had been 1973—and now they couldn’t settle for anything less than cutting down the nets.
Indiana was joined at the Philadelphia Spectrum by UCLA, Rutgers and Michigan, all with a story of their own. UCLA was in its first year of the post-John Wooden era. Rutgers was undefeated themselves. Michigan was a beneficiary of the fact that the NCAA was just starting to open its field up to at-large teams—no longer was it just one bid per conference.
The Hoosiers officially called an end to the era of UCLA dominance in the Saturday semi-finals with a 65-51 win keyed by Wilkerson’s 19 rebounds. Michigan ended Rutgers dream season and set up an all-Big Ten title game on Monday night.
It wouldn’t have been the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers if they coasted home. Michigan led at the half 35-29, but it was all Indiana in the second half, as they hung 57 points on the board after intermission. Knight’s biggest stars played like it, as May and Benson combined for 51 points and the final was 86-68.
When you hear about the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers it can seem as though their perfect season was almost a fait accompli, coming off the disappointment in 1975. The record shows the reality as quite different. This was a team that was beatable and in repeated situations where they might have lost, right up to the bitter end.
But being beatable and being beaten are two different things and Knight’s ’76 Hoosiers never were. They’re the last Division I college basketball team to be able to say that on the final Monday of the season.