Kentucky enters this weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis with a 38-0 record, looking to become the first team to complete an undefeated season since Indiana in 1976. But there’s another team from ’76 that history sometimes seems to forget.
A team that won its first 31 games en route to the same Final Four the Hoosiers dominated, only to lose its bid for perfection one round shy of a potential clash for the ages with Indiana, then fall again in a consolation game that no near-perfect team wanted to play.
Rutgers is not necessarily synonymous with success on the hardwood and hasn’t been for some time — the school hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game in more than 30 years — but that year’s Scarlet Knights, led by Phil Sellers, Mike Dabney, Hollis Copeland and current Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan, overachieved, put the entire country on notice and nearly became college hoops’ gold standard.
Unlike Indiana, a preseason No. 1 in a situation similar to Kentucky’s this year, Rutgers was never expected to be dominant. But after reaching the NCAA tournament in 1975, the team was at least pegged to be competitive. After a few early wins, opponents started to sense something special was going on in Piscataway.
"We played Penn at the Garden (Madison Square Garden) in the fifth game of the year, and after the game, (Penn coach) Chuck Daly mentioned to the media, ‘This team could go undefeated,’ " former Rutgers coach Tom Young told FOX Sports in a phone interview Wednesday. "So I told him, ‘Hey Chuck, thanks a lot.’ But he was the first person who mentioned it, and as the season went on it obviously got to be more of a discussion point."
Still, as wins began to pile up — Purdue, Seton Hall, Boston College, Connecticut, Temple — few saw Rutgers as a threat to contend long-term. Even Rutgers itself didn’t realize just how good it was.
"We knew we were going to be a pretty good team because the year before we had played well and we had (James) Bailey come in as a freshman, and he started after his sixth game and helped us at the center position," Young said. "So we knew we were going to win games, but nobody ever thinks you’re going to 26-0 and 31-0."
Well, most of the Scarlet Knights, anyway.
"After about the seventh or eighth game, I made an off-the-cuff remark to a reporter from the New York Post where I said, ‘I really don’t foresee us not going undefeated,’ " said Dabney, a senior guard in 1976. "I was just speaking my true feelings. I wasn’t bragging or boasting, but there were teams on our schedule that we owed payback to from being beaten previously, the last few years."
By mid-December, Rutgers was well on its way to a perfect run and had broken into the top 20, and at that point, more and more players started to believe their own hype.
Tom Young led his Scarlet Knights to a 31-0 mark before the Final Four.
"It was around Christmas that we thought were starting to hit our stride," said Copeland, a sophomore forward on the ’76 team. "Our defense was strong, our offense was explosive and we had a good feel for the game, and I think that every player was in unison, marching to the same drum. After that point, we started paying attention (to being undefeated) because the papers started paying attention, and you hate to do this, but you start looking at the schedule saying, ‘OK, this game is going to be tough, this game’s not, this game’s not.’ "
Added Young: "When you start out and get to 12 or 13 (wins), whether you like it or not, the subject is going to come up with every game and increase more as it gets into the 20s, and then you go along. It’s easier for coaches to concentrate on the next game than it is for the players, who can get carried away."
Of course, the Scarlet Knights’ ballooning confidence wasn’t rooted in ignorance. Rutgers didn’t run into many close calls over the course of the season and won its first 31 games by an average score of 18 points — including consecutive 14-point wins over Connecticut and VMI in the regional semifinal and final. Still, a couple near-misses earlier in the year did call attention to places where Rutgers needed to improve, and by and large, it did.
The first was a seven-point win over Georgia Tech in the finals of December’s Poinsettia Classic — a game that saw Rutgers trail with fewer than seven minutes left to play. Then there was a 92-81 overtime win against Manhattan that included an 18-point second-half rally by the Jaspers while Jordan sat on the bench. Then in the last game of the regular season, an 85-80 win over St. Bonaventure, Rutgers trailed by seven with six minutes to go.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, against in-state rival Princeton, Rutgers escaped with a 54-53 victory after Tigers guard Pete Malloy missed the front end of a one-and-one with four seconds left in the game.
"Those close games, without a doubt, bring you back to reality a little bit," Young said. "And I think Kentucky, for example, this year, having three or four close games — especially the Notre Dame game (on Saturday) — it gets your kids thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got to keep our nose to the grindstone and continue to work hard.’ I don’t think losing helps, but I think close games definitely do.
Close games get your kids wanting to go out and work harder the next day, but there was no way that I wanted to lose and we wanted to lose, and I don’t think anybody benefits from doing so.
"Close games get your kids wanting to go out and work harder the next day, but there was no way that I wanted to lose and we wanted to lose, and I don’t think anybody benefits from doing so."
Once Rutgers finally got to the Final Four, though, the stage got a little bit too big.
"They had the Final Four in the Spectrum down in Philadelphia, which might as well have been our home court," Copeland said. "We were an Amtrak train stop away, so it was in our backyard, and because it was the bicentennial they made everything more grandiose, and I think we sort of got caught up in that a little bit."
Before they knew it, the Scarlet Knights found themselves down by 17 at the half to a Michigan squad that was undoubtedly talented but perhaps not great — and certainly not unbeatable.
"I thought we had a lot of confidence going into the game, but we shot so bad," Young said. "We started out something like 2 for 16, but the majority of the shots were really good shots, almost all of them at the head of the circle or inside.
"I called a couple timeouts, but it’s not a case of saying, ‘Hey you guys, you’re taking bad shots,’ or, ‘We’ve got to get the ball inside,’ or, ‘You’ve got to play better defense.’ It was just a case of, ‘Hey, just continue what you’re doing and the shots have got to start to drop.’ Some nights they do and some nights they don’t, and Virginia and Villanova were perfect examples of that this year."
Despite the huge halftime deficit, Young said he still felt his team was in a position to win.
"The year before, we played Louisville in the first round of the NCAAs, and we played our butts off and shot extremely well and we were up by two at halftime, and I told the assistant coaches, ‘Let me tell you something, we’re in deep trouble because we can’t play any better and we only have a two-point lead,’ and we were in trouble, and we ended up losing," Young said.
"That night, with Michigan, it was in reverse. I told them, ‘Hey, you guys, we can’t shoot any worse, and we’re too good to have two halves like that.’ That’s an OK plan against teams that aren’t every bit as good as you are, but even though we went out and shot a little better, we couldn’t make it up against a team as good as Michigan was."
In the end, the Wolverines won, 86-70, and advanced to the title game against unbeaten Indiana while Rutgers dropped to 31-1.
"It was really tough because you get that far, and obviously you want to win the whole thing and the fact that you lost — and we lost because we happened to have a bad shooting night — it’s not fun at all," Young said. "In fact, I remember walking back from the arena to the hotel in Philadelphia all by myself. It wasn’t a very pleasant evening, to say the least."
Added Dabney: "I think Phil probably said it best: If we played five times, one of us would win three out of the five. And I think it would have been us. From an athletic standpoint, we had the better athletes, but they played the better game that day."
Then, to make matters worse, the Scarlet Knights had to play in the third-place game against UCLA. Rutgers lost that game, too, 106-92, and even Young will tell you his guys were facing an uphill battle.
"I think they made a great decision to stop having a consolation game (after the 1981 season), because neither team is into it," Young said. "You don’t come in to the tournament thinking about finishing third or fourth. Maybe if you’d already lost four or five games, it wouldn’t be as difficult to take, but when you lose and it’s your first of the season, believe me, you’re not ready to play a consolation game a couple nights later.
How rare is it that you have two undefeated teams in the Final Four? Obviously the team that wins it and remains undefeated is going to get the majority of the press, and rightfully so, but what we did was a tremendous accomplishment for a school that didn’t really have a history of NCAA appearances.
"No matter what we did, we could not get back the intensity and the desire and the will to want to really go out and play our butts off. That wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t happen."
Over time, however, the pain of those two deflating losses began to subside — even if most of the basketball world forgot the 31 incredible wins that preceded them.
"How rare is it that you have two undefeated teams in the Final Four?" Dabney said. "Obviously the team that wins it and remains undefeated is going to get the majority of the press, and rightfully so, but what we did was a tremendous accomplishment for a school that didn’t really have a history of NCAA appearances."
"After time, you can look back and say, ‘Hey, there are only six teams that have been undefeated going into the Final Four,’ and it’s a lot easier to appreciate," Young added. "I also think it’s important that we had great chemistry on that team, and to this day . . . everybody has stayed so close, so you can look back and you appreciate it more every day when you see how difficult it was."