The 1975-76 season won’t be easily forgotten. Neither the excitement of the undefeated regular season nor the appearance in Philadelphia among the nation’s top four teams. Memory will retain the constant pressure applied offensively and defensively in Tom Young’s intense style of play.
From the beginning, a Scarlet stage was set that would be a perfect forum for a style of play fans and players enjoy. The constant pressure applied would dictate an opponent mistake and a quick capitalization with a long pass and an open layup. It happened too many times to be accidental - Sellers to Dabney to Jordan - a blur of uniforms streaking toward the hoop.
The Scarlet strength was evident early, the quickness on offense, the tenacious pressing defense.
A romp over visiting Bentley in the season opener got the Knights flying and quick wins over Purdue and Seton Hall set up a big match with Boston College. When Rutgers ran away from the highly respected Eagles on the road by 23 points, people began to take notice. The Knights were for real.
Prepping for the Christmas foray into South Carolina and Florida, Rutgers dispensed with Penn, Connecticut and Temple, each time scoring better than 95 points. In the opening round of the Poinsettia Classic, the Scarlet defeated The Citadel to go into the final against Georgia Tech. The tough Yellow Jackets posed a threat but Rutgers went on to win its first holiday tourney in history.
Then, it was on to Stetson where the Scarlet completed the southern swing with a win over the Hatters who lost very infrequently on their home court. Disneyland’s Space Mountain was scarier.
Back at home, Rutgers defeated Fordham on regional TV to push the record to 11-0 in the first week of the new year, and talk of going all the way began to be heard. Following a win over Columbia, Young's confident club went on a tear, scoring over 100 points in games with Bucknell, Lehigh, Lafayette and Pitt, setting up a classic matchup with Princeton, one of the nation's top defensive teams. The hare raced past the tortoise by a 75-62 count but would meet again when the race would be closer.
The season wound down with four home games and two dates in Madison Square Garden. Averaging 93.5 points over the six-game span, Rutgers raised the record to 23-0. Recognition poured in from all points and Rutgers was becoming a household word.
A pair of 100-point victories, over LIU and William and Mary, brought the record to 25-0. It came down to a Monday night in March, with St. Bonaventure the upset-minded visitor. The bold Bonnies held a scary lead with two minutes to go but, Cinderella-like, Rutgers would not be denied. A clutch 85-80 win caused the fans to mob the court and then take to College Avenue to honor their heroes. It was perfection!
What many felt to be the “real season” began with a second victory over LIU and a hard-fought win over St. John’s, games which brought Rutgers its second straight ECAC Metropolitan crown and a bid to the NCAA tourney. The road to Philadelphia was shortened.
By draw, the Scarlet would face Princeton again in Providence. Close all the way, the game was closer at the finish. Pete Malloy’s missed foul shot and Mike Dabney’s recovery with four seconds remaining gave the Scarlet a 54-53 celebration and sent the Knights off to Greensboro for the Eastern Regionals.
The Scarlet Knights with their trophy
Connecticut, a team which had fallen to Rutgers by 13 points in the season’s sixth game, was the first-round foe. The Huskies were pesky but the Scarlet prevailed, 93-79. A winner over DePaul in first-round action, VMI became the 31st victim, succumbing to a rare Rutgers height advantage. The Keydets faded after a fast start, falling, 91-75.
The dream fostered back in October had become a reality, and the reality was named Michigan, Indiana, and UCLA.
Rutgers had not played a “bad” game all year long. There had been individual failures but never a day when all had gone sour together. It would happen, unfortunately, against the Wolverines, who also predicated their game on quickness and pressure. Sadly, silently, suddenly, the winning streak came to an end in an 86-70 loss. The bubble burst. Rutgers came back with a valiant effort against UCLA in the consolation game but was unable to contain the big Bruins at the end, losing 106-92.
The season did not end there. Following a short layoff, the squad flew to Italy to take part in the City of Rome International Basketball Tournament. Even in that historic city, the Scarlet Knights’ achievement had been well-told. It will be told again and again.
1975-1976 Final Record: 31-2
Abdel Anderson (9.4/4.4), James Bailey (8.5/7.1), Mark Conlin (2.1/0.8), Hollis Copeland (12.9/6.7), Mike Dabney (19.1/4.6), Steve Hefele (3.7/2.6), Ed Jordan (14.1/3.1), Jeff Kleinbaum (2.7/0.9), Stan Nance (1.1/0.7), Mike Palko (1.9/2.8), Bruce Scherer (2.2/1.8), Phil Sellers (19.2/10.2)
The 1975-76 Final Four team was honored on its 25th anniversary in January 2001.