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Gonzaga’s run at perfect season a cause for concern among longtime Indiana fans

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The community of banners residing in the rafters of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at Indiana University represents the proud history and success of a college basketball program that’s made 39 NCAA Tournament appearances, won five national titles and claimed 22 regular-season conference championships.

But the shrine hasn’t grown much over the past decade – a dissatisfying era of Hoosier hoops most fans hope the program can leave behind them now that Indiana has replaced Archie Miller with Mike Woodson – and, go figure, one of the only new banners to go up during that stretch is actually one that honors the past.

The rectangular piece of cloth stretches about 30 feet horizontally and hangs behind the field goal on the north side of the court. Just like its companions at Assembly Hall, the crimson red banner is embroidered with white letters and reads: “1976 Indiana Hoosiers: NCAA’s #1 All-Time March Madness Team.”

For all the recent heartache IU fans have endured, bring up the 1975-76 season in conversation with any Hoosiers fan and it’ll most always elicit a wide grin.

“For a young IU fan, that’s the team you hear about from the most people,” said Galen Clavio, an Indiana native who holds three degrees from IU and heads the school’s sports media department. “It’s something that gets talked about year after year. It hasn’t been a very successful last quarter century for IU basketball, but that team is something I think most fans – at least most over the age of 40 – still mention or talk about.”

You can expect those conversations to amplify the next four days.

If heavily favored Gonzaga (30-0) can win a Final Four matchup against UCLA (22-9) on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Bulldogs will get a shot at Baylor or Houston to clinch the first undefeated season since 1975-76, when Bob Knight’s Hoosiers completed a 32-0 season with the national title.

That may not be a topic Mark Few wants floating around the locker room as the Bulldogs prepare for the program’s second national semifinal, but it’s something Gonzaga fans have been conscious of for over a month now, and therefore something that Indiana fans have had to take notice of – albeit reluctantly in some cases.

“People I get together with, some strong IU fans essentially hope that, although it’s been 45 years, that no one’s done this that they hope it becomes 46, 47, 50 years,” said Bruce Jaffee, a faculty athletics representative for IU from 2003-11. “But I guess my view is, once you set a standard of an undefeated team, undefeated year, that’s a standard for people to break. Whether it’s a 4-minute mile in track or some other record.”

Bob Hammel is the former sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Telephone (now the Herald-Times) and developed a relationship with Knight, IU’s coach from 1971-2000, while covering the Hoosiers during the 1970s. A Bloomington resident, Hammel’s maintained his friendship with Knight and the two still dine together on a weekly basis.

“We often laugh for a few hours and have a good time,” he said.

Hammel’s position as someone who grew fond of Knight and his players during the program’s golden era, but also someone who’s grown to admire Few’s work in Spokane, leaves him conflicted when it comes to the 2020-21 Zags vs. 1975-76 Hoosiers. When Indianapolis hosted the 2006 Final Four, Hammel met Few at an event honoring the 1975-76 Hoosiers.

“He’s an impressive man and I’ve always had a good feeling for his teams and I was hoping somewhere along the line he’d win one, because he’s had such a quality run with that program,” Hammel said of Few. “I kind of will regret seeing this standing (go) of this IU team as the last unbeaten champion – I’m not particularly ready for that to go because I like those guys. … If it will be lost, they lost it to a very, very high-quality team. That’s a marvelous team that Mark’s put together and he’s done an awfully good job with it.”

Just four teams have threatened Indiana’s standing as the sport’s last unbeaten national champion. Hoosiers fans breathed a sigh of relief when Larry Bird and Indiana State finally lost after keeping a perfect record all the way into the national championship game. UNLV (1990-91), Wichita State (2013-14) and Kentucky (2014-15) all had chances to copy Indiana’s feat before losing in the NCAA Tournament.

“The Facebook pages that are devoted to IU fans and the tradition, they go crazy (when an undefeated team loses). Everybody starts posting the team photo from ’76 that’s so recognizable,” said Chris Williams, an IU graduate and sports buff who collects various memorabilia items and posts them to a Twitter page, @IUArtifacts. “There is that sense of relief, but I think part of the relief is, we look at it like it’s not going to happen, but I think this Gonzaga team’s different.”

If the Zags manage to pull off the feat Monday in Indianapolis – a mere 53 miles from Indiana’s campus in Bloomington – another conversation is sure to surface: Whose perfect season was more impressive?

Some will say the Hoosiers, who undoubtedly played a stronger conference schedule and won games in front of raucous road crowds – something the Zags didn’t have an opportunity to do because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Of the 1975-76 Hoosiers, Hammel said, “Their schedule was, I really believe, I don’t know how you could fairly match teams up, but I think the schedule that team went through to go undefeated to win a national championship is the best anybody’s ever done.”

Indiana opened the year with an exhibition game against the Olympic gold medal-winning Soviet Union national team in Indianapolis, winning by 16 points, and then thumped reigning national champion UCLA by 20. In the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers faced SEC champion Alabama in the second round – comparatively a much tougher foe than GU’s second-round opponent, Oklahoma.

On the flip side, a case could be made for Gonzaga because of how the Bulldogs have dominated almost every opponent they’ve played this season, winning 27 consecutive games by double figures – many against West Coast Conference opposition, but others against the likes of Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, Creighton and USC.

“People would say, ‘Well, it’s in an unfair comparison.’ Well, it’s never a fair comparison,” Jaffee said. “Let’s look at Gonzaga’s opponents compared to a Big Ten schedule. IU will have played a few more games, I guess, and the pandemic has changed everything. But, so be it. (In) ’74-75, there wasn’t a time clock and a 3-point shot, so the whole game was different.”

Clavio also weighed in on that subject, giving a slight nod to Gonzaga.

“I think in this day and age, it might actually be a little harder, even Gonzaga being in the West Coast Conference,” he said. “That’s obviously not a huge test, but Gonzaga goes out and tests themselves in the out of conference. They travel all over the place. Just being in the tournament, having to deal with that gantlet of teams you have to go through to win a national championship, I think it might be a little harder today simply because we haven’t seen it done.”

Saturday’s game will present a dilemma for Indiana fans. The Hoosiers may not want to see the Bruins add another national title to their current pile, which would extend UCLA’s advantage over Indiana to 12-6. But it still might be easier to stomach than watching the Zags make history at 32-0 – the same record IU finished with in 1975-76.

“I think a lot of us would’ve been very comfortable if Gonzaga had lost,” Hammel said. “They’d probably have a lot more fans right now today if they’d lost one back in December.”

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