The Wire-to-Wire Club is now in session. Notice how we won’t need many chairs.
Admission is simple, but hard. Very, very hard. There are only three requirements.
Be the No. 1 ranked team in the first college basketball poll.
Stay No. 1 all season.
Win the national championship at the end.
Not a lot margin for error in that process, is there? This in contrast, say, to the nine national champions who started the season unranked – 2011 Connecticut the last one.
The San Francisco Dons of 1956. Say hello to Bill Russell.
The UCLA teams of 1967 and ’69. Welcome back, Lew Alcindor, only now the name tag says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The ’69 Bruins actually lost their last regular season game to USC, by the way. But back then, that was after the final poll, so there was no worry about losing No. 1.
UCLA of 1972 and ’73. Good to see you again, Bill Walton.
Indiana, 1976. Yes Hoosiers, we know. You’re still the last unbeaten champions.
Duke, 1992. Who somehow managed to stay No. 1 while losing two games during the season.
And that’s it. Seven teams in all recorded history. That’s how distinguished the group is before us. It didn’t take long this season to know there would be no new face added in 2018; as quick as you could say Boston College 89, Duke 84. That loss on Dec. 9 knocked the Blue Devils from the top spot.
How hard is it to accomplish, when you have a target on your chest from the first moment of the season, and wear it for five months? We can ask a couple of guys who did it.
Quinn Buckner, from 1976 Indiana, for instance. The road to the Wire-to-Wire Club began the March before, when the unbeaten Hoosiers were knocked out in the regional championship game by Kentucky.
“I don’t know if you can be any more of target than being No. 1,” Buckner said. “The real genius was the way Coach (Bob) Knight diverted a lot of the attention by some of the things he did. I would guarantee you if he thought we were starting to feel pressure, he may act out one way or another. The press tended to follow him and he kept us shielded as a rule from the press.
“Being No. 1, he actually put it on us even more. Coach said that we couldn’t be satisfied with winning the Big Ten or winning the NCAA, we had to do it undefeated. From there, you just play. "
They found out how being ranked No. 1 guarantees nothing the season before, when Scott May's injury led to the Kentucky loss in the Elite Eight. It would be 20 months until the next Hoosiers defeat. "I don’t think you have that success without having that sense of failure," Buckner said. "I don’t think you ever have to lose to learn a lesson, but that was the lesson we learned when we lost.”
Or Mike Krzyzewski. Duke as preseason No. 1 in 1991-92 was not exactly a shocker, with the likes of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Thomas Hill returning from the 1991 national championship lineup. They never let it go.
“For a normal group, that’d be a lot of pressure. It’s something that they relished,” Krzyzewski said. “I think it is a load sometimes when a team is voted preseason No. 1 and that team hasn’t accomplished anything, or it’s a brand new team. You’re not worthy yet to carry the load, or ready. You may never be ready. But in ’92, that team was. That’s one of the better teams in the history of college basketball.”
Duke lost at North Carolina in early February and at Wake Forest later in the month. Both times, there was enough turbulence behind the Blue Devils, they stayed at No. 1. The heat remained set on top-ranked high.
“Because they were national champs the year before, they understood it. We really didn’t talk about it, we just wanted to win every game,” Krzyzewski said.
History remembers well enough how close a call it turned out to be. No Grant Hill pass to Laettner in the East Regional title game, no turnround jumper at the buzzer to beat Kentucky 104-103, no spot in the club.
“We were never as good in February, March and April as we were in January, because we got injured,” Krzyzewski said. “It’d have been neat to see how good we could have been. I even scheduled not as many games before Christmas that year, and we didn’t practice as much, because I thought they’d get bored. I thought I’d bring them along. We practiced right after Christmas and, boom, they were great right away.”
Then the training room began to crowd up.
“Maybe the injuries made us hungrier,” Krzyzewski said. “And then we lost a couple of games. It was a team that might have gone undefeated, really.”
The record will show a lot of almost-members. Kentucky had one foot in the door in 2015, before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Same for UNLV in 1991, before running into Duke.
Prime time for near-misses was the early 1960s, with Cincinnati in the middle of it all. The Bearcats were two games away in 1960, before losing to California in the Final Four. Ohio State had only the national championship game to win in 1961 and ’62, both times being stopped by Cincinnati. The next year, Cincinnati needed only a title game victory, and was upset by Loyola of Chicago.
So the Wire-to-Wire Club stayed small, exclusive, almost unreachable. It still is.