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Gonzaga Basketball

Former Indiana great Quinn Buckner on Gonzaga’s pursuit of perfection: “I’m pulling for them”

Quinn Buckner, point guard on Indiana’s 1976 undefeated national championship team, hears the question every time a team gets reasonably close to a perfect season.

It’s a common refrain at the moment with Gonzaga (30-0) just two victories from joining an exclusive club of seven unbeatens – including four UCLA teams in the 1960s and 1970s and the last being the Bob Knight-coached Hoosiers 45 years ago – to hoist the national championship trophy.

“Some people bad-mouth the (1972) Miami Dolphins for that,” said Buckner, referring to former Dolphins’ annual celebratory toast when the last NFL unbeaten falls. “That’s a pro sport and those are men. I get rooting against men, but these are kids. I’m pulling for kids and I’m pulling for them.

“I’m pulling for them to have a unique experience and one of the greatest experiences they’ll have in their life. They’ll remember the lessons of being disciplined, prepared, supporting each other and starring in your specific role. And they’ll take that into the world and have success because that’s what happened to our team.”

Jim Crews, a senior guard on the Hoosiers’ 32-0 squad, considers the question and chuckles.

“We are very boring compared to the Dolphins,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday from his home north of Indianapolis. “I think they’re the best team, but that doesn’t mean you win it all. My in-laws have been huge Gonzaga fans for 20 years.

“Just how they run their program, how humble they are and how (coach) Mark Few conducts himself, shoot, if anyone does it, I’d be glad it’s them if they do it.”

The Zags have more work ahead – perhaps their heaviest lifting yet – to complete an unblemished season, beginning Saturday against 11th-seeded UCLA in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The ’76 Hoosiers know all about the journey, the target on their chests and the pressure of maintaining a zero in the loss column in the heat of an NCAA Tournament.

They nearly did it twice. The Hoosiers were 31-0 in 1975 before losing to Kentucky with a spot to the Final Four on the line. Star forward Scott May was slowed by an injury and limited to 7 minutes.

“We felt the disappointment and the sting of losing,” said forward Tom Abernethy, owner of the Indiana Basketball Academy. “The reality was that next year the bull’s-eye was that much bigger, but we were quite convinced that we still had something to get done.”

Indiana went wire-to-wire at No. 1 in 1976, beginning with a 20-point win over defending champion UCLA. In an era with no shot clock or 3-point line, the Hoosiers won scoring 58 points against Illinois and 114 versus Wisconsin.

Abernethy, who averaged 10 points and 5.3 rebounds, called Buckner and 6-foot-7 Bobby Wilkerson the nation’s toughest and best defensive guard tandem. Buckner said Wilkerson was the team’s best athlete and “it wasn’t even close.”

May averaged 23.5 points and blossomed into the player of year. Kent Benson (17.3 points, 8.8 rebounds) was a rugged force inside.

Still, the Hoosiers had numerous close calls. They trailed rival Michigan by two late in regulation.

“There was a long rebound, kind of parallel to the baseline and I was able to get it and throw it up and Benson tipped it in,” said Crews, before suggesting, “You could say it was a pass.”

The Hoosiers beat the Wolverines in overtime. In the NCAA Tournament, they beat five ranked teams, four in the top 10, capped by a third victory over Michigan, 86-68, after trailing by six at half in the championship game.

“Coach Knight didn’t rant and rave (at half),” said Buckner, an analyst on Indiana Pacers television broadcasts. “The end of his speech was, ‘You have 20 minutes to do what you came here to do. Let’s go.’ ”

Buckner said Knight was “a genius” at keeping the team focused and prepared, even diverting attention to himself so the players could stay on task.

That chore would be considerably tougher today in the age of social media, heavy media attention and nearly every game on television.

“The world is kind of crazy with all that stuff,” Crews said. “It’s obviously tougher from that standpoint. In our day we didn’t live together, didn’t eat together, we didn’t stay summers, which I think was healthy. I’m not jealous of how it’s set up today. I think it’s tough on kids.”

“Night and day difference,” Buckner said. “It’s harder with all those things. It would be a real challenge for these young men and Coach Few and his staff because now people can get directly to the guys. Coach Knight at this stage would have told us to leave our phones in a locked box.”

Abernethy, Buckner and Crews watch Gonzaga when their schedules allow. They see many of the same qualities that made the Hoosiers so special 45 years ago.

“Very impressed with what I’ve seen,” Abernethy said. “A lot of weapons, a lot of people that contribute. When you have more than one or two people that are carrying the load, that’s a good recipe.”

“You can see they’re seasoned, they can play and they play with poise,” Buckner said. “They understand how to play. Coach Knight had this great saying that the mental (part) to the physical was 4 to 1. You can see it when Gonzaga plays.”

The Hoosiers’ bonds remain strong. Abernethy, May and Buckner recently visited Knight and had a “really fun time,” Abernethy said. The players stay in contact, catching up on their families and lives more than basketball.

Abernethy’s son, Todd, is an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic and friends with Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell Jr.

In the small-world department, Powell and Illinois lost to North Carolina, led by May’s son, Sean, who scored 26 points, in the 2005 national championship.

Abernethy thought about making a request during a recent conversation with Todd.

“I was going to joke, ‘Tell (Roger) to take it easy on trying to join your dad’s exclusive club,’ but I never got it out. We started talking about something else,” Tom said. “I’m not going to lose my identity if the next undefeated team joins us.

“We did what we did, it’s not like we own anything. There’s plenty of room in this winner’s circle.”