This is a new IU basketball series that will focus on a specific date in Hoosier hardwood history. In addition to game notes, important facts, and highlighted pieces of IU memorabilia, there will also be a focus on pop culture facts (music, movies, TV), other sporting highlights, as well as U.S. and world events. Inspiration for this series comes from the “Random Box Score” series from soxmachine.com.
The Game: Wisconsin (8-8 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten play) at Indiana (17-0 overall, 8-0 in Big Ten play), January 31, 1976. Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana
Pop Culture and Major Events
Top tunes on the chart for early 1976 included “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players, “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers, and “I Write The Songs” by Barry Manilow.
Theater-goers enjoyed the latest Stanley Kubrick flick “Barry Lyndon,” as well as the Clint Eastwood western classic “The Outlaw Josey Wales”.
Notable U.S. headlines for January 1976 included a victory in the Iowa Caucus for future U.S. President, Jimmy Carter. Famed British crime novelist Agatha Christie would pass away at the age of 85. The Pittsburgh Steelers would be victorious in Super Bow X over the Dallas Cowboys, their second straight Super Bowl victory.
Following a crushing loss to Kentucky in the 1975 NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers entered the 1975-76 season with one goal in mind: a perfect season.
Even with the departures of seniors John Laskowski and Steve Green, a core group of roster talent led many to believe that a special season awaited.
Coach Bob Knight prepared a challenge for his Hoosier squad right out of the gate: a face off against defending NCAA champion UCLA in the season opener. The Hoosiers would throttle the Bruins in St. Louis by 20 points and remained unscathed during the pre-conference season.
Indiana had gone an unprecedented 18-0 a season prior in conference play, and got off to a unblemished start during the 1976 Big Ten Conference season winning their first eight conference games. As a home game (the first of three straight) against Wisconsin loomed on January 31st, the Hoosiers were ranked #1 in the country and a perfect 17-0 overall. Still, Bob Knight would not let his Hoosier squad overlook any opponent, regardless of record.
Wisconsin, a team who had found itself in the middle or toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings in each of the last ten seasons, had come off a tough 8-18 overall season in 1974-75, finishing 8th in the conference. Entering the 1976 Big Ten conference season, questions remain as head coach John Powless looked over his young Badger squad. As Wisconsin prepared for a showdown in Bloomington, the Badgers were hoping to snap a six-game conference skid.
The Starters for Indiana:
Tom Abernethy (Sr.), Quinn Buckner (Sr.), Scott May (Sr.), Bobby Wilkerson (Sr.), Kent Benson (Jr.)
The Starters for Wisconsin:
Dale Koehler (Sr.), Brian Colbert (So.), James Smith (Fr.), Bob Johnson (So. ), Bill Pearson (So.)
Indiana was the heavy favorite on a cold Saturday night as Wisconsin entered a raucous Assembly Hall for a Big Ten showdown.
Even though Indiana had not dominated conference opponents like a year earlier, the Hoosiers were taking care of business in conference play. However, the Hoosiers looked out of sync from the start, going a cold 0-5 from the field. A Scott May jumper put the Hoosiers on the board after more than three minutes.
Despite Indiana’s misses from the field, Wisconsin had an even harder time shaking Indiana’s tough man-to-man defense for easy access to the basket. In fact, the Badgers would not score until after an astonishing 11 minutes.
Once the Hoosiers’ shots began to fall, IU was off and running. Shots falling by 6’7″ guard Bobby Wilkerson and forward Tom Abernethy stretched Indiana’s lead to 14-4 against Wisconsin’s unique 1-3-1 defense.
Once it became fairly clear that the more dominant Hoosier squad would be able to take care of business, coach Bob Knight began going to his bench. By halftime, with the Hoosiers on top 62-30, nine Hoosiers were in the stat book with points.
The second half would not be much better for Wisconsin as the Indiana lead began to balloon even larger.
Indiana’s depth and talent simply over-powered the young Badgers. Indiana’s only real blemish would come in the second half, and not by a Hoosier player.
Coach Knight would overwhelmingly disagree with a foul call against senior guard Quinn Buckner, and made his case … perhaps a little too overpoweringly. Knight was hit with two technical fouls (no ejection), but it did little to boost momentum for Wisconsin.
Indiana’s lead increased to an eye-opening 41 points, 80-39, with more than 13 minutes left in the game. At that point, Indiana starters would be pulled for good. It would be one of the few times during Big Ten play that all 13 Hoosiers would see floor time. In fact, only one Hoosier (Jim Crews) would not score during the Wisconsin game.
When it was all said and done, Indiana had put on a clinic, defeating over-powered Badgers, 114-61. Senior Scott May would lead four Hoosier double-figure scorers with 30, followed by 23 points from junior center Kent Benson.
The Indiana victory would clinch new records for the storied program: the 114 points scored would be a then Assembly Hall record, and Indiana’s 28th straight conference victory would be a new Big Ten conference record (breaking the record of 27 straight victories by the Ohio State teams from 1960-62).
Bob Knight: “I think in some phases of play we were somewhat sporadic. I hope we can see a characteristic emerging where we are as tough as we can be defensively. I don’t think we have been until the last three games.”
John Powless: “They’re just awesome. We used kind of funny little defense there at the start and thought we were giving them some trouble with it. They don’t score for three minutes; and they only have 12 after six minutes.”
The conclusion of Indiana’s 1975-76 is one that has been stated countless times but is worth repeating.
Despite close calls in conference play, including an overtime thriller against Michigan and two close games against in-state rival Purdue, Indiana entered the NCAA Tournament a perfect 27-0. Their two consecutive undefeated conference seasons remain a Big Ten record.
In post-season play, Indiana would find itself Philadelphia facing a familiar foe in the title game: Michigan. Indiana’s third contest against the Wolverines proved to be the most lop-sided, as Indiana would run away with a 86-68 victory, Indiana’s third NCAA title and a perfect season at 32-0.
Following the blowout loss at Indiana, Wisconsin’s season would not be much brighter.
The defeat would be their seventh straight in conference play, and the Badgers would go on to lose 14-straight Big Ten games before final snapping the streak with a victory against Ohio State. Wisconsin would win their final game of the season against Michigan State, finishing 10-16 overall, 4-14 in conference play (9th place).
Following a second-straight losing season, John Powless would be let go as head coach. An interesting note: John Powless, who replaced John Erickson (Powless was an assistant under Erickson) as Wisconsin head coach, was hired after Bob Knight, the then head coach at Army, declined the Badger head coaching job offer.
Resources: sports-reference.com, Indy Star IU Basketball database, Bloomington Herald Times, Wisconsin basketball media guide.