They know exactly what Gonzaga is thinking, feeling, hearing because it has been 45 years since they marched in lockstep to an undefeated season and a national championship.
The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, Bobby Knight’s resolute 32-0 Indiana Hoosiers, can tell the Zags, who have a Sweet 16 date with Creighton on Sunday, what it takes to make history, and why they were able to seize their once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“Part of the preparation is to make sure you’re in the physical condition that you needed to play at a high level for a long period of time,” former Knight point guard Quinn Buckner told The Post. “So when you get to the latter stages of the game, you can do what you’ve been doing earlier in the game. We were in great shape ’cause we practiced every practice like it was a game.
“We played poorly one time during my years there, and he brought us back off a trip and made us go over to what’s now Simon Scott Assembly Hall, and made us tape up, and it had to be 1:30, 2 in the morning. He was that ticked.
“When you’re mentally prepared to do something, there is a silent confidence about what you can do. We were confident but we weren’t cocky.”
The Hoosiers had been the best team a year earlier, but star forward Scott May suffered a broken arm in late February, and Indiana lost to Kentucky 92-90 in the Elite Eight. They finished 31-1.
I asked Buckner if he could recall Knight’s message before the perfect season began.
“He addressed it in a manner that was not narcissistic, it was a little more humble than that,” Buckner said. “It was one of those things, ‘If you do what you’ve been doing and do what I tell you to do, anybody that you play against is gonna have a hard time beating you.’
“The net of it is what undefeated is, but that’s how he said it. I think the other way quite frankly puts a lot more pressure on you, when you start looking at it from the undefeated standpoint as opposed to doing what you’re supposed to do, every game, every possession, that kind of thing.”
Knight molded the Hoosiers into a highly disciplined, laser-focused, mentally and physically tough army.
“My team was smart,” Buckner said. “There was no question about a work ethic, because Coach Knight helped you develop that habit of working, working together, and working on details, so come time to execute that, there was no thought about it. It’s more of a learned behavior that we had, and therefore we worked very well as a team. Even if you took somebody and put him in the game that wasn’t in there all the time, they knew exactly what needed to be done, and if they didn’t get it done, one of those seniors and/or coach was gonna make sure they understand, ‘This is the way we do this. Get there. I don’t want to hear about a screen, that’s the opposition’s job. Your job is to get there. Figure it out.’ ”
Jim Crews was a senior guard on that team.
“First of all, we were very emotionally mature,” Crews told The Post. “Secondly, I think that we had tremendous balance between individual ambition and collective responsibility. I think we loved the competition. We always knew the purpose, within the possession and within the game. You don’t think about national championship. If you think about that, you’re gonna get beat.”
Crews and Buckner differ over whether the Hoosiers felt pressure before and during the tournament.
Buckner: “No. Coach Knight did a terrific job of making sure that that wasn’t a part of the process. Because a lot of the pressure’s put on you, particularly if you’re interested in reading about what people think about what you are, versus what you are. We didn’t have many distractions. He would not allow distractions. … So his thing was, ‘Hey, don’t worry about what they’re saying out there, you need to worry about what you’re doing in here.’ That’s a great way to eliminate a lot of the outside noise.”
Crews: “We had to win it all. Absolutely. there’s pressure. We had done everything, we had won four Big Ten championships in a row, we’d been to Final Fours, we’d been really undefeated the year before till we got beat in the Elite Eight when Scott had gotten hurt a couple of games before that.”
Michigan was their last hurdle.
“We knew we were better than them, they knew we were better than them, the whole country knew we were better than them, and we also knew they could beat us real easy (chuckle) because they were really good,” Crews said. “Now it comes down to just one game. Period.
“You got one shot at forever, and that was our one shot and we took advantage of it.”
Knight had his Ohio State teammate, John Havlicek, who was at the end of his Hall of Fame career with the Celtics, give a pregame speech.
“He was saying how you’ll remember this the rest of your life, you’re gonna remember your teammates the rest of your life,” Crews said. “You gotta earn it, nothing’s gonna be given to you because of your record or ranking or who thinks who’s gonna win.”
The Hoosiers trailed 35-29 at the half. Knight said little.
“He just said we had 20 minutes to prove what he thought we were made of,” Crews said.
The final was 86-68.
“It was more of a relief,” Crews said.
Now, Gonzaga (28-0) burns to finally kick the championship door down, trying to get to 32-0.
“Gonzaga may have the best team,” Buckner said, “but if they don’t play that way on a given night in the tournament, you’re done.”
Because the old Hoosiers have never forgotten what it meant to them, they will applaud the Zags if they can do it.
“I’ll be happy for those kids,” Buckner said. “Being the last one doesn’t take away the fact that you’re undefeated and you’re national champion. I don’t mind at all. I know there’s some that do, and I understand what happens in professional football with Miami. That to me doesn’t matter.”
“That doesn’t diminish anything that our group did,” Crews said. “There’s enough success and happiness in the world for all of us. It’s be a great accomplishment for ’em.”
One shot at forever.