The Rides of March. … And Beyond
Bender revisits Indiana’s perfect season – Part II
Bob Bender likes to share a story about his first practice as an Indiana University basketball player.
The current Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach made a wager back then with Rich Valavicius and Scott Eells, the two other scholarship freshmen on the Hoosiers’ roster, on which one of them would get yelled at the most by coach Bob Knight at their first practice.
When the session was finished, Bender had won the bet convincingly.
“On the very first day of practice, I found out that. Coach Knight’s philosophy was that he didn’t explain anything. He’d just say, ‘On the whistle, we’re going to break up and work on four-man shell drill,’” Bender said. “None of us as freshmen knew what the heck that was. What he wanted to see was your ability to observe and grasp stuff. He also wanted to see if guys had a feel for getting with a senior who had some prior knowledge.
“So that was my eye-opener. Our freshmen’s heads were spinning. We didn’t figure things about until about the third day that you had to watch and get with the upperclassmen before practice and get an idea for what was going to happen.”
The Hoosiers’ coaches and veteran players were an extraordinarily driven group. IU’s 1974-75 team had gone 32-0 before All-American forward Scott May – who played for the Bucks in 1981-82, sustained a broken arm in the team’s last regular-season game. The top-ranked Hoosiers opened the NCAA Tournament by defeating UTEP and Oregon State before being edged by Kentucky 92-90 in a regional final.
“Coach Knight has been quoted as saying his most talented team at Indiana was the one from the year before,” Bender said. “That team had Steve Green and some other key guys. Because some of our guys had gone through that year and come up short, our team had focus from Day One.
“It wasn’t good enough just to win the Big Ten championship. It wasn’t good enough just to be in the Final Four, either. It was all about winning it. They felt they should have won it the year before.”
As Bender looks back on what the Hoosiers went on to achieve – something that hasn’t been duplicated since – he remembers how Knight prepared them for any potential pitfalls.
“What our team accomplished was a testament to how consistent that team was,” Bender said. “Coach Knight always talked to that team about, ‘It’s not the opponent; it’s playing up to our potential.’ He used to say, ‘We have to play Michigan twice-- we wound up playing them three times that year because we faced them in the championship game-- and that in itself is difficult.’ Everybody says it’s hard to beat somebody twice and go on the road and win.
“Our guys really embraced that idea that our opponent was our potential. There were games where, the next day in practice, you’d have thought we lost by 20. But he would not let that team rest as far as the approach it took.”
Bender learned the ins and outs of Knight’s coaching style as the season unfolded.
“He treated everybody the same,” Bender said. “I remember before the season, Quinn Buckner got hurt. He was out of about three or four practices. It was during a stretch where we weren’t playing very well and Coach Knight wasn’t very happy with us. He attacked Quinn, and he wasn’t even practicing.
“It was Quinn’s leadership that Coach Knight was attacking. He’d say, ‘Look what these guys are going through and you’re just sitting over there.’
“That’s when you’d go, ‘I know when I make a mistake, I’m going to hear about it. If he goes after Quinn, he’s going to go after me.’”
Bender said a player needed a thick skin to endure playing for Knight.
“You did,” he said. “But the thing I always tell people is, ‘It’s not how he says something, it’s what he says.’ People would say to me after I transferred to Duke, ‘I’ll bet your practices at Indiana were a lot
harder than they are at Duke.’
“I’d say, ‘Not at all – not from a physical standpoint. It was the mental standpoint that took its toll on you.’”
That was a constant grind.
“Coach Knight would be leaning against the basket standard and doing something with the big guys,” Bender said. “We broke down drills at the other end. If you made a mistake, one of the assistants would come and get you. If you made that same mistake later, Coach Knight would really light into you and say, ‘You’ve already been told this! Now sit there and watch!’ That’s how he handled it. You had to stay mentally engaged all the time.”
Bender has said that he learned more and improved more during his season at Indiana than during any other time in his life.
“What was great about Coach Knight was, because of his attention to every little detail, our challenge in practice was to get the starters ready for what they could expect,” Bender said. “That was part of our motivation. That way, we always felt a part of it all. That way, if we played well, maybe we could play just a few minutes in the game. Afterwards, if Coach Knight thought we played well, he would always say a few words about what we did to get the team ready. He was great about that.”
“I’ve always told people, ‘So much of what I learned at IU in my freshman year helped me when I went to Duke. They were great lessons. All you had to do was keep your ears open, take it and put it in perspective. It would help any player. It taught you how to play the game the right way and what it takes to be successful.”
Bender learned his role, but he didn’t allow himself to become complacent or unprepared.
Neither did his coach.
“My role was so small and my minutes were limited,” Bender said. “I knew going into the season that I wasn’t going to get to play much because of my age and the number of people ahead of me at my position.
“We were playing Ohio State, and of course our games with Ohio State were always huge because Coach (Fred) Taylor was still there and he had coached Coach Knight there. You knew what the week leading up to the Ohio State game was going to be like. We were at halftime and they had an All-Big Ten guard named Larry Bolden who had 18 points at halftime going against Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Jimmy Crews, all seniors.
“I had a little routine at halftime where I’d have my orange slices and my drink in front of me and I’d just sit there and listen. I figured nothing was going to be directed at me. Coach Knight came in and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Bender and Wisman, you’re starting the second half.’
“I almost choked on my orange. I was thinking, ‘Bolden had 18 against these guys. I can’t imagine what this guy might do to me.’ It wasn’t a case of thinking, ‘All right! I’m going in!’
“Well, Coach Knight came to his senses and didn’t do it. He got the other guys’ attention by just saying it.”
Bender did have a memorable game experience during Indiana’s undefeated season.
“When we were in New York playing in the Holiday Festival my freshman year, we had to play three games in three days,” Bender recalled. “We were playing Columbia in the first round. Given the opportunity, we hoped we’d be ahead and we could rest our starters and we’d get in the game. I wound up having my career high at IU – I had 12 points. I got to play a lot of minutes.
“At least I went in and did what I was supposed to be. It wasn’t a case where I played poorly and Coach put Quinn or Jimmy Crews back in. That would be about the closest to a time where my game contribution was significant enough to make a difference.”
Bender could sense the pressure of the winning streak increasing as the season unfolded, but Knight kept the team grounded, either by storm or by calm.
“From game to game, Coach Knight even broke games down from half to half,” he said. “There were plenty of times where we were pretty lethargic or just not playing very well. He would get our focus back right away.
“I think as the season went on, you also learned that Coach Knight had a great feel for when to lighten up on the pedal. It wasn’t always pedal to the medal. There were times when we weren’t playing well that we expected to hear about it, and he would be completely calm. He would push a different button.
“He also had a great feel for personalities. He could tell when guys were reaching that breaking point and he would ease off. What that did was help everybody else, too, and calm the team down.”
Indiana had its share of close calls, winning three regular-season games by three points or fewer.
The Hoosiers entered the NCAA Tournament facing the most difficult route ever dealt to a top-ranked team. Their route would include a regional matchup against No. 2 Marquette and convinced the NCAA Tournament Committee to begin seeding the tournament.
Indiana opened with a 90-70 victory over 18th-ranked St. John's 90-70, then encountered a formidable hurdle.
“Most people will tell you that on the way to the Final Four, there was a call that was just huge,” Bender recalled. “We were playing Alabama, which had Leon Douglas (a star center) at the time. He got into some early foul trouble, but they had to put him back in. The lead was going back and forth.
“All of a sudden, the whistle blew. Somebody had taken the ball to the basket and Leon was there. They called a block instead of a charge. That put him back on the bench. He was just giving us fits. We got control when he was on the bench and wound up winning the game (74-69). People always wonder, ‘What if they had called a charge on that play and he would have continued to play?’
Indiana squared off against a 27-2 Marquette team In the Mideast Regional final. Marquette coach Al McGuire implemented a box-and-one defense in an attempt to contain May, but the Hoosiers prevailed 65-56 to punch their ticket to Philadelphia.
In their national semifinal, the Hoosiers faced 27-3 UCLA, which was ranked fifth in the country. Indiana won 65-51 as May, Buckner, Kent Benson and Tom Abernethy all scored in double figures and 6-7 guard Bobby Wilkerson grabbed 19 rebounds. May, Buckner and Benson would all go on to play for the Bucks.
Michigan defeated Rutgers 86-70 in the other national semifinal, dealing the Scarlet Knights their first loss of the season and earning a third chance to play Indiana, which had defeated the Wolverines during Big Ten play 80-74 and 72-67 in overtime.
The Hoosiers and Wolverines became the first two teams from the same conference to meet in the NCAA championship game. Michigan’s starting lineup included Rickey Green, another future Milwaukee Buck, along with future NBA player Phil Hubbard.
“Here we were playing Michigan again,” Bender said. “Our first two Michigan games were absolute battles. There were times when Coach Knight respected the other head coach and the program. He loved that Michigan team because those guys were so tough.
“Steve Grote was the point guard. He was a tough guy. They had an undersized forward named Wayman Britt who could really guard. Those guys gave you nothing easy.
“Here we were, being undefeated and about to play for the national championship, and we had to play Michigan. Nobody had any secrets or tricks. It was just what we expected – a really tough challenge to win it. The game unfolded just like that. Finally we got a little separation.”
Indiana lost Wilkerson to a concussion two minutes into the game, but rallied from a 35-29 halftime deficit for an 86-68 victory, completing its perfect season and earning Knight his first national championship.
Benson was named Most Outstanding Player after scoring 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds. May scored 26 points, Buckner had 16 and Abernethy totaled 11
Bender saw one minute of action in the title game.
Not long afterward, he decided to transfer.
“It was tough to leave,” he admitted. “I had to meet with Coach Knight. I went in to talk to him about it. He said, ‘Well, I’m not going to talk to you today. Come back tomorrow.’ He made me come back two or three times.
“I said, ‘Coach, I know I can play here. I know I can become better. For whatever reason, I worry about making one mistake and it becomes a problem and I make two or three. That’s no good for me and I’m certainly not going to help this team very much,’” Bender said. “We talked for about 20 minutes at a time.
“After that, he said, ‘You’ve thought about this. Let’s move on and talk about what you want to do.’ Being Coach Knight, he went through the schools I was considering and said, ‘Yes. No. Maybe. No.’ When I mentioned Duke, he said, ‘Start with Duke. And don’t make this decision on basketball. Make this decision on your education and beyond basketball.’ That stuck with me. Duke was the only school I visited. I saw exactly what Coach Knight was talking about. I fell in love with all aspects of the whole thing, and he threw 100 percent of his approval to Duke.”
Bender played point guard for Duke from 1977-80 under coach Bill Foster. The Blue Devils reached the 1978 NCAA championship game, falling 94-88 to Kentucky. Bender became the first player to play on two different teams in two different NCAA title games.
Bender wonders if another college basketball team will be able to duplicate Indiana’s perfect season of 1975-76.
“In today’s game, with the parity in college basketball, you really have a hard time thinking that somebody could go through an entire season undefeated,” he said. “Now, everyone has conference tournaments. Back then, the Big 10 didn’t have one. The ACC’s was the only one that existed. That adds a lot to how difficult it would be to go undefeated all the way through.”
THE 1976 NCAA CHAMPION INDIANA HOOSIERS
Tom Abernethy, #33 Forward-6-7 Senior South Bend, Ind.
Bob Bender, #25 Guard 6–4 Freshman Bloomington, IL
Kent Benson #54 Center 6–11 Junior New Castle, IN
Quinn Buckner #21 Guard 6–3 Senior Phoenix, IL
Jim Crews #45 Guard 6–5 Senior Normal, IL
Scott Eells #31 Forward 6–9 Freshma Hoopeston, IL
Mark Haymore #32 Forward/Center 6–8 Sophomore Cleveland, OH
Scott May #42 Forward 6–7 Senior Sandusky, OH
Wayne Radford #22 Guard/Forward 6–3 Sophomore Indianapolis, IN
Jim Roberson #43 Forward/Center 6–9 Freshman Rochester, NY
Rich Valavicius #34 Forward 6–5 Freshman Hammond, IN
Bob Wilkerson #20 Guard/Forward 6–7 Senior Anderson, IN
Jim Wisman #23 Guard 6–2 Sophomore Quincy, IL
INDIANA’S PERFECT 1975-76 SEASON
Indiana 84, UCLA 64
Indiana 80, Florida State 59
Indiana 63, Notre Dame 60
Indiana 77, Kentucky 68
Indiana 93, Georgia 54
Indiana 104, Virginia Tech 74
Indiana 106, Columbia 63
Indiana 97, Manhattan 61
Indiana 76, St. John’s 69
Indiana 66, Ohio State 64
Indiana 78, Northwestern 51
Indiana 80, Michigan 74
Indiana 69, Michigan State 57
Indiana 83, Illinois 55
Indiana 71, Purdue 67
Indiana 85, Minnesota 76
Indiana 83, Iowa 73
Indiana 114, Wisconsin 61
Indiana 72, Michigan 67 (OT)
Indiana 85, Michigan State 70
Indiana 58, Illinois 48
Indiana 74, Purdue 71
Indiana 76, Minnesota 64
Indiana 101, Iowa 81
Indiana 96, Wisconsin 67
Indiana 76, Northwestern 63
Indiana 96, Ohio State 67
Indiana 90, St. John’s 70
Indiana 74, Alabama 60
Indiana 65, Marquette 56
Indiana 65, UCLA 51
Indiana 86, Michigan 68