Once upon a time, perfection was not uncommon

Today, we salute the Big Ten’s other almost-perfect team, and with it a bygone era when undefeated records were quite common.

As Kentucky makes its run toward college basketball’s first perfect season since 1975-76, focus is justly on the Indiana team that last achieved the feat.

Will the Wildcats take the distinction that has belonged to the Hoosiers for almost four decades?

What is sometimes forgotten in the IU story is that the Hoosiers were one of two unbeaten teams in that year’s Final Four. Rutgers, now of the Big Ten, reached the championship round at 31-0.

Forget about that? It’s excusable for even the best basketball fans.

The 1970s were a time when undefeated runs were common. Seven teams entered the tournament without a loss during the decade. Three of them won — UCLA in 1972 and ’73, along with the Hoosiers three years later.

Among those that came especially close, Rutgers made it to the Final Four before losing to Michigan. With the Scarlett Knights’ move to the Big Ten, revisionists can now claim three conference teams in those finals. Rutgers also lost the now-defunct consolation game to UCLA.

Closer to home, undefeated Indiana State (1979) lost in the championship game to Michigan State.

As the decade closed, though, so did the run of perfect teams.

Only 1991 UNLV made it to the Final Four with a perfect record since then; the Runnin’ Rebels were upset by Duke.

What changed?

Several things. Made-for-TV early season matchups (although IU fans will recall the UCLA-IU game in St. Louis to kick off the 1975-76 campaign), greater depth of talent all around and an exodus of young, talented players to early entry in the NBA and elsewhere. For example, IU started four seniors and a junior, all of whom later played professionally.

Perhaps most important was the introduction of the 3-point line and shot clock that essentially keeps hot-shooting underdogs in a game longer.

Quinn Buckner, a guard on that 1976 IU team, said coach Bob Knight understood the significance of that accomplishment.

“Because he said, at our senior night, to all the people in Indiana, ‘Take a look at this team. You’re never gonna see another one like it,'” Buckner recalled in talking last week with NPR.

Knight was right.

What followed was a period where “undefeated” was a word that retired from the college basketball lexicon.

It took 23 years for another unbeaten team to even make the tournament. Wichita State was beaten in the third round by Kentucky last season.

And now, 39 years after the Hoosiers became college basketball’s last perfect team, the Wildcats have a chance to wrest that crown. Indeed, many commentators already have them cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.

But those who think this is sure thing would be wise to recall UNLV, which followed its 1990 title with that undefeated run all the way to the Final Four a year later. There, Christian Laettner and Duke pulled an upset for the ages and went on to take the title.

By the way, that 1991 title game — just like this year — was in Indianapolis.

Around this time of year, the ball sometimes takes a funny bounce.

History may be made by an undefeated Kentucky team this March, but only if history doesn’t repeat itself first.

At a glance

The Perfect (And Almost-Perfect) Teams Of The 1970s

• 1971-72 UCLA Bruins

Led by coach John Wooden and center Bill Walton, these Bruins (30-0) demolished their opponents by an average of 32 points.

• 1972-73 UCLA Bruins

The ’73 Bruins (30-0) continued the winning streak. UCLA would eventually win 88 games in a row.

• 1974-75 Indiana Hoosiers

This team (31-1) dominated the Big Ten, averaging 88 points per game. But star forward Scott May broke his arm late in the season, and the Hoosiers lost to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.

• 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers

The ’76 Hoosiers (32-0) had some close calls early on, but finished strong with an 18-point win over Michigan to win it all. They remain the last team to have finished a season undefeated.

• 1975-76 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

This Rutgers squad (31-2) scored over 90 points in 25 of their games. They rolled into the NCAA Tournament undefeated before losing both their Final Four matchup and the consolation game.

• 1978-79 Indiana State Sycamores

Led by Larry Bird, the ’79 Sycamores (33-1) marched through the tournament undefeated before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the most-watched college basketball game ever.

• 1978-79 Alcorn State Braves

The ’79 Alcorn State team (28-1) ended their regular season without a loss, but weren’t invited to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they went to the NIT, where they lost to Indiana.

Compiled with research from NPR.

Author photo
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.