The perfect journeys to the tourney
06/07/2014 12:49 PM
08/06/2014 10:25 AM
Wichita State’s Ron Baker, age 20, sat behind a microphone in St. Louis almost two weeks ago and looked ahead to 2054.
“When I’m tired and 60 years old,” he said, “I’ll look back and say, `Hey, we were 34-0.’ But right now, it just feels like another game.”
Told of Baker’s words a few days later, 60-year-old Jim Crews chuckled.
Crews and his teammates on the 1974-75 and 1975-76 Indiana teams are all round the “Hey, we were whatever and 0” age. So are the member of the 1975-76 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Those teams, plus the 1979 Indiana State Sycamores and the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, are the last five teams to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten. Only the ’76 Hoosiers sealed the deal and won the championship.
Here’s a look at those teams. Look for similarities to the 2014 Shockers. They’re there.
Indiana didn’t just win during the 1974-75 season.
“We destroyed people,” Jim Crews said. “We were so much better than everyone else, it wasn’t even funny.”
Crews was a junior reserve guard on a team with an average victory margin of 22 points. Five players would become NBA first-round draft picks.
They probably came within a broken arm of winning the national title. Bob Knight later would call it his best team ever – even better the Hoosiers of the next season, which finished unbeaten and did win the national championship.
Behind the likes of Steve Green, Scott May, Ken Benson and Quinn Buckner, Indiana dominated the Big Ten (18-0).
“That was the easiest year I’ve ever experienced in basketball,” said Crews, a 26-year veteran as a head coach and now at Saint Louis. “Great offense, great defense, experienced bench. That team was dynamite.”
But May, a star junior forward, broke his left arm late in an 83-82 victory over Purdue on Feb. 22. After missing a couple of games, he continued playing but was limited.
The Hoosiers, however, continued winning and faced Kentucky in NCAA Midwest Regional final. May had scored 25 points in a 98-74 victory over the Wildcats in December, but he managed just two in seven minutes of playing time in the tournament.
Kentucky won 92-90, despite Benson’s 33 points and 23 rebounds.
“To win it all, you have to be really good,” Crews said, “and you have to get lucky, too. We were very, very good. But with Scott being hurt, the margin of error was slimmer. We didn’t get lucky enough on that last one.”
Right down to the end, Indiana had its critics during the 1975-76 season.
Yet, those Hoosiers finished the season unbeaten – the last team to do so – and won the national title.
Indiana defeated powerful UCLA 65-51 in the Final Four semifinals. After Rutgers lost to UCLA 106-92 in the third-place game, Scarlet Knights coach Tom Young said the Bruins had the most talent of the teams in the finals.
Jim Crews, a senior reserve guard for Indiana that year, said, “It wasn’t an easy year.”
Relatively speaking. In the previous season, the Hoosiers had demolished teams prior to falling in the Midwest Regional final for their first loss.
These Hoosiers still had four players – Scott May, Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Bob Wilkerson – who would be drafted in the NBA’s first round. May was the national player of the year.
But Indiana also won seven games by six points or less.
“The ’76 team doesn’t have team didn’t have as much firepower as the ’75 team,” said Crews, coach at Saint Louis. “We didn’t have as many good shooters, we didn’t have a deep bench in terms of experience.”
But those Hoosiers were lucky, he added.
“Most champions most years have a few things happen that were very fortunate,” Crews said.
It was also a season of relief. After winning 88-68 over Michigan – despite losing Wilkerson to an injury in the opening minutes – to win the title, Indiana had at last done it all.
The senior class was in the Final Four as freshmen and had won four Big Ten championships, including 37 straight league games.
“The only thing we hadn’t won was a national championship,” Crews said. “Emotionally, the happiest we were was when we beat Marquette to get to the Final Four.
“You come down to one thing for the whole career. Winning the thing was almost a relief.”
Four members of the 1975-76 Scarlet Knights later played in the NBA. Not surprising, given the way Rutgers played during its unbeaten regular season.
The Knights pressed. Stole passes. Created havoc. Forced turnovers. Ran the other way to quick jumpers or easy baskets. Then pressed again.
Rutgers averaged 93.6 points on its way to a 29-0 regular season. Following an 81-73 season-opening victory over Purdue, the Knights reeled off 14 straight games in which they scored at least 91 points.
“We played West Virginia in the Garden and we had them 16-0 and I don’t think they had gotten the ball across halfcourt,” Rutgers coach Tom Young said by phone. “Our defense gave us as much offense as our offense did.”
Rutgers was 26-0 entering the tournament but, similar to Wichita State, had to deal with critics who said the Knights’ schedule was soft.
“They’d say we got there because we didn’t play in the ACC or in the Big Ten,” Young said. “It was irritating to me, but I understood it. It’s a fact of life.”
Rutgers prevailed over a Princeton slow-down game in the opener, winning 54-43. The Knights then beat Connecticut 93-79 and VMI 91-75 to reach the Final Four.
There was a shared unbeaten spotlight, though. Indiana had rolled through its Big Ten schedule and was unbeaten at 31-0 entering the Final Four. Rutgers lost 86-70 to Michigan in the semifinals.
“Did strength of schedule catch up to us? No, I don’t think so,” Young said. “We were like 2 of 12 or 14 shooting. Nerves got into us as much as anything.”
Young said the ’76 Knights remain the closest group of players he coached, likely because of their place in Rutgers hoops history.
“The kids don’t worry about the next game like coaches do,” Young said. “But during the season and later on, they will look back and appreciate it and stay close because of it.”
Indiana State 1979
Indiana State was the nation’s top-ranked team. The Sycamores had Larry Bird. They were 29-0 going into the NCAA Tournament. The world was a perfect place.
“A good memory,” Bill Hodges, the coach at that Indiana State team, said. “Really, our biggest goal was just to get to the tournament. The year before we lost out to Creighton and went to the NIT with 27 wins. That was pretty harsh.”
Speaking of harsh, Hodges thinks it’s an apt way to describe Wichita State’s draw in this year’s tournament.
“Having to play Kentucky in the second round?” Hodges said. “That’s tough. And then Louisville. Gosh, they loaded Wichita State up.”
Indiana State got through Virginia Tech, No. 16 Oklahoma, No. 5 Arkansas and No. 6 DePaul before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State 75-64 in the national championship game.
“Everybody said we were overrated,” Hodges said. “So we wanted to get to the Final Four, definitely. But I don’t think we felt a lot of pressure.
“Having been to the Final Four last year, Wichita State might feel a little more pressure than normal. But we were too naive to feel pressure.”
The Rebels were in the spotlight, in Sin City and on the national stage, from the moment they showed up on campus in the fall of 1990 as the defending national champion and preseason No. 1. They won with flash — they scored more than 110 points 11 times and averaged 97.7 points. Their only loss came in one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, losing 79-77 to eventual NCAA champion Duke in the national semifinals.
The Shockers have won with defense — they’re holding opponents to 59.5 points and have yet to break the 100-point mark this season. They’ve only scored 90 points twice, the last coming in a 90-72 win over Depaul on Nov. 25.
UNLV had four future NBA draft picks — including first-rounders three No. 1s in Larry Johnson, the overall top pick, current UNLV assistant coach Stacey Augmon and CBS analyst Greg Anthony.
UNLV played outside of the power conferences, in the Big West, and relished its shot at the NCAA blue bloods.
Johnson, their best player, averaged 22.8 points, 10.9 rebounds and was a talented, multi-dimensional forward (with a bit of a hot streak) that coach Jerry Tarkanian plucked from the junior-college ranks.
Their point guard, Anthony, was undersized at 6-foot but possessed the quick hands (2.3 steals) and passing skills (8.8 assists) to dictate the tempo of the game on both ends.
Their coach was an outsider to the blue bloods. Tarkanian coached in the California junior colleges until he was 38, when he became coach at Long Beach State in 1968. He reached his first Final Four, with UNLV in 1977, until he was 46.
Any of that sound familiar?