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IU provides a lesson in perfection

When they gathered together at midcourt, snippets of the net collected, trophy in their grasp, they knew what they had done.

But the accomplishment they celebrated wasn't what we have come to talk about since, in the 39 years since Indiana strung together 32 wins without a loss and won a national championship.

Now, it is all about that goose egg in the loss column.

Then? Then it was about the trophy.

"We knew we didn't lose, but we didn't think about the fact that we were undefeated,'' Quinn Buckner said. "When you lose a game, you know you lost, so we knew, but we didn't think about that. We knew we won a national championship. After that, it was like, 'Hey, we didn't lose a game. That's pretty good.' It was the second reaction, not the first.''

It won't be the same this time around, if there is a "this time around."

Kentucky's pursuit of perfection has become more accurately a preoccupation with perfection, a mad and nervy quest for a 40-0 season that has been the talk of college basketball since the first practice.

And believe it or not, it's about to get even bigger.

Now that the fact that the Wildcats haven't lost collides with the reality they cannot afford to lose, we are about to begin a March tempest unlike any other. With all due respect to Wichita State, this just isn't the same. This is Kentucky, with its tradition of past and its lightning-rod present, trying to make history.

This is an insatiable fan base fed by the perfect ringmaster coach. All have said that they, like the Hoosiers, care more about the championship than the undefeated record, but let's be honest: John Calipari has a national title, the Big Blue Nation a collection of them. Winning another is like adding a bauble to the Crown Jewels or giving Bill Gates a buck.

Now, adding a title that's underlined with the stroke of history, achieving something that hasn't been done in 39 years, that only nine teams have ever accomplished? Now we're talking.

It's strange, really. In so many ways, Indiana of 1976 wasn't entirely different.

Bob Knight, who refused comment for this story, was every bit as divisive as Calipari, the Hoosiers every bit as loaded with talent.

Coming off a season in which they lost but one game -- ironically to Kentucky in the regional final -- Indiana started the season by steamrolling the Soviet national team in an exhibition and then blowing out UCLA. The game after that 20-point win over the Bruins, Indiana faced Florida State. Then-coach Hugh Durham quipped, 'They beat Russia to prove they're the best in the world. And they beat UCLA to prove they're the best in the United States. Now I'd like to see them prove they're human and have a bad game.''

They didn't. Indiana won by 24.

Which reads a little like Kentucky's scorched earth from Kansas to Ar(kansas) of this season.

The IU players, when they reflect about their season, sound very much the same as the Wildcats.

They talked about how Knight tried to insulate them from the noise, much like Calipari does; how he demanded more even when he was receiving so much, much like Calipari is (if anyone saw him coaching against the pitifully undermanned Auburn Tigers in the SEC tournament as if they were the Dream Team, you'd agree).

"If you did one thing in practice that was even close to showboating, Coach Knight would light you up,'' Buckner said. "In a lot of ways, Coach Knight was like my father, but my dad was soft spoken and overbearing. Coach Knight was loud and overbearing. He told us, 'You need to worry about pleasing me, not anyone else.'''

Added starting forward Tom Abernethy: "There were times during that season we felt we were maybe winning 50 percent of the games we were playing in. It felt like we were 10-10, not 20-0.''

And as the wins mounted, building toward March, they remember how it felt -- "the target grew on your back, no doubt,'' Abernethy said.

But the Hoosiers didn't have to deal with 24-hour sports news, nightly televised games, social media or even cellphones.

Five Indiana players from that team would play in the NBA (Buckner, Abernethy, Scott May, Bobby Wilkerson and Kent Benson) but getting to the league wasn't a priority.

It wasn't even a thing.

Guys played basketball until their college shelf lives expired and moved on. One step followed the next.

There were no hangers-on, no shoe deals in the wings.

"Simpler time? That's an understatement,'' Buckner said. "There were so many less external forces and clutter to deal with.''

Really, though, what makes this so much bigger, what's made what was once viewed as an exclamation point addendum to a successful season into a March Madness Mission is time.

A four-decade drought isn't quite Cubbies-esque, but it's a long, long time.

History is strewn with the detritus of teams that have tried and have failed -- 1976 Rutgers, losers to Michigan in the national semifinal; 1979 Indiana State, losers to Michigan State in national championship game; 1991 UNLV, losers to Duke in the national semifinal; 2014 Wichita State, losers to Kentucky in the round of 32.

Back when the Hoosiers won them all, UCLA had made the achievement seem almost ho-hum, streaking together perfection in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973.

When something has been done almost regularly, trying to match it just isn't a big deal.

"When you fall just short, it's on your radar that the zero [losses] is a possibility, and you want to see if you can keep it rolling,'' Abernethy said. "But the zero wasn't important to us or our coach. After the prior year, it was winning the last game that you played in that mattered.''

When it hasn't been done, when you can be the first to break the chain? When you can be Kentucky and add to your glittered résumé of success?

Yeah, that's a big deal.

"I never thought it would be this long,'' Abernethy said.

With every passing season that no one matches the deed, the brass ring grows even shinier. It is not about being the next so much as being The One.

When it happens, if it happens, they won't mind. These are not your 1972 Miami Dolphins, rooting for whatever team is currently playing Kentucky.

Their identities might have roots in 1976, but they are not rooted there entirely. Too much life has happened in between then and now.

Abernethy, who runs a basketball academy in Indiana, was spending the day chasing his grandchildren around his complex when he answered the phone with a cheerful "This is Tom Abernethy, eating a doughnut."

Buckner has been working in the Indiana Pacers front office for a decade.

"What has occurred many years ago, that's in the books,'' Buckner said. "You're the best team in college basketball, a team that was undefeated. Nothing takes away from that. That was history.''

And it will always be history, their history, even if they wind up sharing it.

Because the Hoosiers were never preoccupied with perfection.

They were chasing a championship.