Bob Bender will watch the NCAA Final Four with interest, pulling for Duke to win a national championship but not selfishly hoping the Kentucky Wildcats lose in their bid for perfection.
“You have to have the ultimate respect for any team that goes undefeated,” Bender said this week. “In itself, it’s quite an accomplishment to win a national championship. But to do it and finish undefeated? I think you have to be on the inside to really know how great an accomplishment that is.”
Bender knows. He was freshman guard on Indiana’s 1976 national champions, the 32-0 team coached by Bob Knight and the last Division I men’s team to finish undefeated.
But Bender has a rare distinction. Transferring to Duke after that season, he played in another national championship game in 1978 when the Blue Devils lost to Kentucky – the only player to play in two finals with two teams.
Adding another Kentucky twist is that the ’76 Hoosiers edged the Wildcats – in overtime – early that season. And while the Wildcats topped Duke 94-88 in the ’78 final, Bender was a senior two years later when Duke beat Kentucky in the 1980 Mideast Region semifinals in Lexington, Ky.
Flash forward 35 years and Bender is 57. He has a daughter on the Duke soccer team. A former head coach at Illinois State and Washington, he later was an NBA assistant coach for several years and says he’s now open to getting back into college coaching.
And Kentucky is 38-0, with Duke possibly the team that will be standing between the Wildcats and basketball history Monday night in Indianapolis.
“Kentucky is on the cusp,” Bender said. “Can it be done? It’s tough. Not until the final buzzer goes will it be accomplished. They have to know that.”
Indiana State with Larry Bird was undefeated in 1979 but lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the title game. UNLV was the defending national champion and 34-0 when beaten by Duke in the 1991 national semifinals in Indianapolis.
A year ago, Wichita State had a 35-0 record before losing in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament … to Kentucky.
“We had close calls in ’76,” Bender said. “Michigan had us beat at home and we managed to win. Then in the Final Four we had to beat Michigan for a third time.
“We never got comfortable that year, never felt we were at the top of something. Coach (Knight) always felt we could be better. Our approach every game was to play up to our potential, to challenge ourselves.”
Bender laughed, adding, “We won some close games, but the toughest practices we had that season was after we won big but the game didn’t go the way coach Knight wanted it to go.”
In ’78, the Blue Devils had a team led by Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski but also energized by freshmen Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard. It was an exciting joy ride to the NCAA championship game, when Kentucky’s Jack “Goose” Givens ignited for 41 points, hitting 18 of 27 shots.
“Kentucky was the complete opposite of us and more like our Indiana team, with a lot of veterans,” Bender said. “Kentucky’s veterans made the difference, made the key plays. And Goose made way too many plays.”
It’s a different era and a different Kentucky team in 2015. Undefeated, yes, but with young, soon to be one-and-done players headed to the NBA.
The Wildcats will face a more experienced Wisconsin team Saturday in the semifinals. And for Duke to go at it again with Kentucky in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, the Blue Devils must get past Michigan State.
Bender was coached at Duke by Bill Foster. An assistant coach for Mike Krzyzewski from 1983 to 1989, he gained an appreciation for the way Krzyzewski handles and molds teams.
Bender says a lot of the same things in describing Krzyzewski and Knight, the other Coach K, the one who coached Krzyzewski at Army, hired him as an assistant at Indiana and was so influential in his career.
“One mark of greatness in Mike’s program is communication,” Bender said. “The players always know what to expect and what they have to do. And there’s always someone who steps up. This year Quinn Cook stepped up. He’s a senior, a leader, the one who makes the big plays.
“That’s a result of Mike’s communication, of telling him, ‘This is what we need from you this year’ and Quinn doing it. And Mike has complete confidence in his players. And the guys know it.”
Bender said it would “historic” to have a Duke-Kentucky showdown Monday night. As for Kentucky chasing history, Bender said he was not like the members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins – the last NFL team to have a perfect season – who hold a toast each season when the last unbeaten NFL team takes its first loss.
“I’d be fine with it,” Bender said of a 40-0 Kentucky season. “Wichita State had a chance to go undefeated last year. It’s a matter of time. When it happens all you can do is congratulate them because you know how hard it is.”