IN EVERY GAME of this NCAA tournament Kentucky will face two teams: the one on the court with them, and the 1975--76 Hoosiers. Indiana went wire to wire that season, Secretariat-style, finishing 32--0 with a national title. No men's college basketball team has gone unbeaten since. But here come the Wildcats.
Perfect teams reside on an exalted shelf in America's trophy room. They are forever unbeaten, untied and untouched. This is why, as far back as 2013, Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "Before I retire, I'd like to coach an undefeated team."
And this is why the 2007 Patriots' loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl stings more, even now, than the 2011 Patriots' loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl. The '11 Pats were chasing a championship. The '07 Pats, 18--0 entering the game, were trying to climb onto that shelf. Sports fans will always wonder if the pressure got to that New England team, and not just the Giants' pass rush.
The 1972 Dolphins remain the NFL's last unbeaten team, and the average fan surely remembers them more than the '73 Super Bowl champions. (That was also Miami. I had to look it up.) If Kentucky wins this year's title, Indiana will fade a little deeper into history, so I asked the point guard on that '76 team, Quinn Buckner: Are you watching Kentucky?
"I may see a game, but I'm not watching Kentucky," Buckner says. "That sounds like I'm on Kentucky Watch. I'm not on Kentucky Watch."
So he isn't rooting against the Wildcats?
"For what?" he asks. "There is nothing to be gained emotionally. I wouldn't dare do that."
Buckner, a former NBA player and coach who is now a Pacers broadcaster, says he can't root against any college team. He has too much respect for the grind, and the opportunity. Besides, when he thinks of a team going into the NCAA tournament undefeated, these Wildcats aren't the first one that springs to mind. It's the 1974--75 Hoosiers.
That Indiana team should have won the national title, but star forward Scott May broke his arm at the end of the regular season, and the Hoosiers lost in a regional final ... to Kentucky. Buckner says the 1975 Hoosiers were "tougher to play against" than the '76 team. But now they are just another entry in the Encyclopedia of Almost.
With each Kentucky win this month, you will hear more about the 1976 Hoosiers. Their coach, a gentleman named Bob Knight, may even say a few words about the Wildcats, and some may even be printable. Knight has made it clear that he regards Calipari the way most of us regard uncurbed dogs.
As the comparisons unfold, prepare for this one: Indiana's seniors "played the right way" and Kentucky's young NBA-bound stars get by on talent, and therefore the Hoosiers were a more worthy champion. It's a cheap narrative, spread by those who haven't actually watched these Wildcats. It also ignores the changes in both the game and society over the last 39 years.
In 1976 an underdog could not pull an upset with a bunch of three-pointers, because there were no three-pointers. And back then—this is hard to believe—people did not take phones to the bathroom. They could reasonably ignore what others said about them. These days, who even tries?
In 1976 there wasn't as much talk about college basketball history, because there wasn't as much talk, period, and there hadn't been as much history. The sport, as a nationwide passion, was still fairly young. Buckner says that during the '75--76 season, "I never heard undefeated." He says the Hoosiers didn't really think about going unbeaten until they had done it. Kentucky's players have been asked about it since the preseason. "I don't think there is any question: It's harder for them," Buckner says.
Buckner speaks to May several times a week. "We talk about a lot of things," Buckner says, "but we don't talk about what Kentucky's doing." There is no need. The Wildcats may bump Indiana over a few feet. But nobody can ever knock the Hoosiers off that shelf.
As Kentucky marches on, the point guard of the last unbeaten men's college basketball team says, "I don't think there's any question: It's harder for them."
Will the Wildcats go undefeated?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED