In the rafters at Assembly Hall in Bloomington hang the five national championship banners the basketball team has captured in its 120-year history, symbols of the heights the program has reached in its storied past. On the opposite wall, hanging above the basket, is a special sign emphasizing the importance of one of those five banners.
“1976 Indiana Hoosiers NCAA's #1 All-Time March Madness Team” the sign reads.
The 1975-76 team, which captured the third of Indiana's five titles, holds a hallowed place in the history of Hoosier athletics; it is a group that achieved a level of greatness not seen since in college basketball. Indiana, led by Scott May, Kent Benson and coach Bob Knight, stormed through its schedule 32-0, the last team to finish undefeated and win the NCAA Tournament.
Knight set expectations high from the team's first practice and they met his standards.
“The day before practice (in 1975), I brought (the players) all together and I told (them) that the only thing that would really matter, and the only goal that we would have, would be that we went undefeated,” Knight said in 2013, when the 1976 Hoosiers were voted the NCAA's all-time best team on the 75th anniversary of the first Final Four.
“I told them that winning the Big Ten, winning the NCAA would not be what they were capable of doing. I said, 'You beat everybody that we play, that would be what you guys are capable of doing.' I think it will always be their mantra, that they did what they were capable of doing.”
Here is a look back at Indiana's 1976 national championship team, which won its title 44 years ago last week. This is the first part of a series on Indiana basketball's 1970s and 1980s championships that will run in the Journal Gazette this week, continuing Monday and Tuesday.
Best player: May
May, a senior in 1976, earned National Player of the Year honors after averaging 23.5 points and 7.7 rebounds and shooting close to 53% from the field. The 6-foot-7 forward, who would be the No. 2 overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, scored 33 points in the team's NCAA Tournament opening-round win over St. John's and ranks 13th all-time on the IU scoring list despite only playing three seasons.
Best non-title game: Nov. 29 vs. UCLA
The Hoosiers, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, faced off against defending national champion and No. 2 UCLA in the season-opener in St. Louis. Indiana blew out the Bruins, who were in their first season after the retirement of coach John Wooden, winning 84-64 thanks to 33 points from May and 17 from Benson.
With the win, Indiana firmly established itself as the nation's top team and would not slip from its perch at No. 1 all season. The Hoosiers would meet UCLA once more in the Final Four and win again, 65-51, to advance to the title game.
Indiana's win over the Bruins in the Final Four set up an all-Big Ten national championship clash at The Spectrum in Philadelphia between the Hoosiers and Michigan, which came into the game 25-6. The Wolverines, led by future All-Americans and first-round NBA Draft picks Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard, had taken Indiana to overtime in February in Assembly Hall, falling 72-67, and jumped out to a six-point halftime lead.
In the second half, however, the Hoosiers raced in front, with May and Benson scoring 27 of Indiana's first 36 points to give Indiana a 65-59 lead with six minutes left. An 8-0 IU run from there sealed the win. May finished with 26 points.
“It was jubilation, it was relief,” said senior Quinn Buckner, who had 16 points in the championship game, at the 2013 celebration. “I think for all of us, the biggest part of that was to see the smile on Coach Knight's face. We didn't see that very often.
“You know it's a memorable moment when you see that on his face.”
The victory made Knight the first ever to win NCAA Tournaments as a player (in 1960 with Ohio State) and a coach.
What The Journal Gazette said
The March 30, 1976, edition of the Journal Gazette featured a story describing Indiana's championship celebration this way:
“The victory touched off a jubilant dance by the fiercely aggressive but usually stoic Hoosiers. On the court awaiting the awards ceremony, the Indiana team popped open a bottle of champagne and waved the bubbly beverage triumphantly around the floor.”
How they defended title
The Hoosiers lost four of their top five scorers, including May, prior to the 1976-77 season. Benson returned to average nearly 20 points and 10.5 rebounds, earning a second All-American designation, but the Hoosiers lost an early-season game to Toledo, snapping a 33-game win streak, and finished just 14-13, missing the NCAA Tournament.
Can it happen again?
The members of the 1976 team are split on whether another college basketball team will be able to complete an undefeated season – May thinks it's possible, while Buckner believes it's difficult with the sport's current incentive structure to keep a group talented enough to do so together long enough for it to mature.
Kentucky came close in 2015 when the Wildcats started the season 38-0 before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. The '76 Hoosiers didn't cheer UK's loss, even though it kept their record intact.
“The thing we don't do, we don't celebrate anybody not having success (and) going undefeated, because for us, what we were able to do, we're very proud of, but we don't relish the fact that somebody hasn't had success doing what they try to do,'' Buckner said. “That's kind of the way Coach Knight would have us.”
This weekend would have been the Final Four in Atlanta. In honor of that event, The Journal Gazette is reminiscing about IU's three most recent NCAA men's basketball championships teams starting today with the perfect 1976 team.
Monday: Indiana's 1981 title team
Tuesday: Indiana's 1987 title team