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Hoosiers last to be perfect

Nancy Armour Associated Press

The Indiana Hoosiers have been waiting almost 30 years for another team to join their select club.

There were a couple of Duke squads that seemed capable of perfection. And that 1991 UNLV team looked like a sure thing until it ran into the Blue Devils in the Final Four. Year after year, though, the contenders fall short, leaving those 1975-76 Hoosiers as the last team to go undefeated for an entire season.

“I guess since it’s been so many years you’d think someone would have done it,” said Tom Abernethy, a starting forward on that Indiana team that went 32-0 on its way to the national title. “So yes, I am surprised.”

Only 12 Division I teams have gone unbeaten since 1939, but four did it in the 1970s. UCLA was 30-0 in both 1972 and 1973, part of its 88-game winning streak that still stands as the NCAA record. North Carolina State also was unbeaten in 1973, but the Wolfpack were on NCAA probation and didn’t play in the postseason.

Five other teams were perfect through the regular season in the 1970s, only to lose in the NCAA Tournament. One of those was Indiana, which won 31 straight before losing to Kentucky in the 1975 Mideast Regional Championship.

The two-point loss was devastating. But it served as powerful motivation the following year. With three All-Americans – Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Scott May – returning, the Hoosiers began the season ranked No. 1 and finished the same way, beating Michigan 86-68 to win the national title.

“That had a lot to do with our success in ‘76. That taste of that defeat stayed with us the next year,” said May, the player of the year in 1976. “That was, in my opinion, the springboard, the motivation to go undefeated.”

Top-ranked Illinois is the last Div. I unbeaten this year. The Illini are 27-0 after beating Iowa 75-65 on Saturday.

The Hoosiers say they don’t remember thinking about trying to make history. Coach Bob Knight never let them look too far ahead, and their focus was always on trying to win one more game.

Knight declined an interview request from the Associated Press.

“It probably is more of a neat thing to look back at, 20-25 years later,” Abernethy said. “Our coach did a good job of not letting us focus on how great we were. It was, ‘Here’s what we’ve got to do this game.’ “

But as the years have gone on, they realize how special the achievement was. No other team has gone undefeated, and the closest anyone’s come are three teams that made it through the regular season unscathed only to lose in the NCAA or NIT tournament.

Larry Bird’s Indiana State team was perfect until it met Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA final. Alcorn State also was undefeated during the ‘79 regular season, but lost in the NIT tournament.

UNLV is the last team to enter the postseason undefeated, and that was back in 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels were upset in the semifinals by Duke, which went on to beat Kansas for the national title.

“UNLV seemed like a lock. They were just blowing everybody out,” Abernethy said. “They were the ones I was almost surprised they didn’t win it all.”

The Hoosiers are still a tight-knit group. They talk to each other throughout the year, and several were on hand when North Carolina played at Indiana in December. May’s son, Sean, is a forward for the No. 4 Tar Heels.

“I think the whole starting five was there except (Bob) Wilkerson,” May said. “All those guys came over at halftime of the game. They all said good luck to Sean as he was coming out of the tunnel, which I thought was really nice.”

Though the Hoosiers keep a casual eye on the unbeatens each year, it’s more out of curiosity than concern for their place in history. They’re not like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who celebrate when the last unbeaten NFL team loses.

“Records are made to be broken,” May said. “I think it’s great for a group of kids to go through a season unbeaten. That tells you a lot about the character of the kids. I’m all for it.”

Jim Crews, a reserve guard on that undefeated Indiana team who is now the coach at Army, agreed.

“It doesn’t diminish anything from our (achievement), San Francisco’s or UCLA’s or anyone else’s,” he said. “There’s certainly enough success to go around.”

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