NCAA Tournament

Hoops juggernaut Kentucky close to joining exclusive club

The University of Kentucky basketball team, led by head coach John Calipari, walks around the floor waving to fans as they conclude practice at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, April 3, 2015.
The University of Kentucky basketball team, led by head coach John Calipari, walks around the floor waving to fans as they conclude practice at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, April 3, 2015. TNS

Two Final Four games, one against Wisconsin on Saturday and Monday night against the Michigan State-Duke winner, separate Kentucky from supplanting 1976 Indiana as the most recent of The Undefeated.

UNLV reached this point in 1991. Duke stopped the Runnin’ Rebels short of 1976 Indiana, somewhere around 31-1 1975 Indiana. Like this year’s, that 1991 Final Four drama played out in downtown Indianapolis, appropriately within a clear-traffic hour drive of each starter and a few reserves on the Hoosiers team that went 32-0 39 years ago.

“It is unbelievable that it’s been 39 years since somebody’s done it,” said Tom Abernethy, a ’76 Indiana starting forward.

Wayne Radford, a key reserve, said he never thought it would be this long because, “You have so many good programs, and if you get on a roll and have that confidence … I thought UNLV would do it. When they went out, I thought no one could beat them.”

Arguing over Who You Got? on some mythical, neutral court between ’76 Indiana and ’15 Kentucky is as endless and pointless as playing peek-a-boo with a 2-year-old. Comparing the task of going undefeated and seeing the teams’ similarities comes out more interesting.

Kentucky is stacked with nine McDonald’s high school All-Americans. Three Indiana starters — guard Quinn Buckner, forward Scott May and center Kent Benson — gained consensus All-America recognition in multiple years. All five starters played in the NBA, four after being first-round picks.

(Abernethy went in the third round to the Lakers, where he started a longtime friendship with the new color man on the broadcasts: just-retired Laker and Kentucky graduate Pat Riley.)

Of course, Kentucky coach John Calipari is performing speed chemistry each season with players staying one or two years, while Indiana’s Bob Knight molded a masterpiece in four years.

“We understood what he wanted done. We knew what had to happen defensively,” Abernethy said. “For teams that have younger players, for them to be playing that well that quickly is a tribute to this [Kentucky] group and their coaches.”

Radford believes Kentucky’s depth allows Calipari to keep players fresh and motivated on the defensive end, with the knowledge that loafing means benching.

“Their defense generates a lot of their offense,” Radford said. “That’s how we used to be. We’d get turnovers and get ahead. Teams would try to press us to get back in the game, and we’d get easy buckets.”

Talk of Kentucky’s impenetrable defense starts with the Wildcats’ length and athleticism. Have the audacity to drive past the twin 6-6 Harrison guards, Aaron and Andrew, and you find 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns or 7-0 Dakari Johnson sliding over to slap your shot.

“If a team has the ability to show a little more patience, they don’t have to shoot those contested shots,” Radford said. “Young kids don’t know these things. They drive down the middle, where Kentucky’s got two or three 7-footers to contest shots.”

Though few talk about athleticism on Knight’s Indiana teams, the thick, chesty Buckner started as a freshman safety for Indiana’s football team. In most games, the only better athlete on the floor was Indiana’s other guard, 6-7 Bobby Wilkerson, a pterodactyl-armed defensive ace. Knight has long admitted that splitting them up after May broke an arm late in the 1975 regular season cost that team the national title. The 31-0 Hoosiers lost 92-90 to Kentucky in the regional finals.

If this season’s Wildcats finish their run, they will have played eight more games than Indiana did, including three in a conference tournament. The Big Ten didn’t have one back then, an important difference. Michigan, which lost in the national title game to Indiana, would have gotten one more shot at the Hoosiers.

In the second regular-season meeting, Michigan actually led by 10 points in the second half, but Indiana got into overtime with a buzzer-beating Benson put back, then won 72-67.

“They had the game won,” said Radford, who provided needed offense late in regulation and overtime. “We kept pushing back, and they seemed to fall apart at the end.”

As Kentucky refused to panic against Mississippi, Texas A&M and in last week’s regional final against Notre Dame, the Hoosiers didn’t against Michigan that day or in the national title game. A wayward forearm from Michgan’s Wayman Britt knocked out Wilkerson three minutes into the title game. The Hoosiers still pulled away in the second half to win 86-68.

Radford recalled feeling total elation at the end. Abernethy recalls a delayed reaction of sorts.

“To go undefeated takes an incredible amount of focus and concentration,” Abernethy said. “Once you finish a task, there’s another one. So, there was gratification, but it’s hard to turn off that intensity and focus. It was probably some time before we took a deep breath and said we did do it. It wasn’t quite total elation because we had been used to the next task ahead.”

For Kentucky, that’s Saturday night against Wisconsin.