The 1985 Michigan basketball team came into the season poised for a breakthrough. The program hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since their 1977 Big Ten championship, a year that culminated a four-year run that included a trip to the NCAA final in 1976. The coach who accomplished that, Johnny Orr, had gone to Iowa State and the program bottomed out with a 20-loss season in 1982.
Orr’s successor, Bill Frieder, was a relentless recruiter and he made the Wolverines respectable again. They won the NIT in 1984 and with an emerging core of young talent had their eyes on a return to March Madness.
No one in the Big Ten was better than junior center Roy Tarpley. He went for a per-game average of 19 points/10 rebounds and won the league’s MVP award. A talented backcourt of freshman Gary Grant and sophomore Antoine Joubert combined for 26 points/6 rebounds/11 assists. Richard Rellford was good for 11 ppg at the forward spot. And the Wolverines had players who would do the dirty work. Butch Wade and Robert Henderson were power forwards that combined to clean up eleven rebounds a night.
It would take a little time for this group to get national recognition. The Big Ten was stacked. Illinois and Purdue had shared the previous year’s championship and each had a top point guard, with Bruce Douglass and Steve Reid respectively.
Ohio State was a consistent contender and had a tough inside force with Brad Sellers. And Indiana? Bob Knight’s Hoosiers had won three outright conference titles from 1981-84, the national championship in 1981, reached the Elite Eight in 1984, then saw Knight and guard Steve Alford help bring home the Olympic gold medal in the summer of 1984.
So it was fair to say that winning the Big Ten wasn’t on anyone’s mind in Ann Arbor. The 8-1 run through non-conference play in December was certainly nice, especially a 63-57 home win over NCAA-bound Georgia. But there was also an 81-77 loss at Tennessee, who would end up in the NIT. And the Big Ten started with two losses in the first three games. The Wolverines fell at home to Indiana and on the road in Illinois, sandwiched around a nice 87-82 home win over Ohio State.
At 1-2 in the league, 9-3 overall, Michigan was simply to looking get its NCAA Tournament aspirations back in order when they visited West Lafayette. An 81-65 thumping of Purdue turned out to be a lot more.
Michigan came home for four straight games. They blasted Minnesota by forty, then nipped a good Iowa team 69-67. They knocked off rival Michigan State 86-75. And a Sunday afternoon non-conference game against Kansas and their highly touted freshman Danny Manning, resulted in a 96-67 rout.
Road trips to bad teams in Northwestern and Wisconsin kept the victory train rolling. Halfway through the league schedule, Michigan was 7-2 in Big Ten play, tied with Iowa for first. Illinois was in the hunt, a game back. Purdue and Ohio State would go on to make the NCAAs, but they wouldn’t make a serious run at first place. And the big news in the league was the collapse of Indiana in the latter part of January, a swoon the Hoosiers would not recover from.
The opening three games of the conference’s second half would be crucial and Michigan met the moment. They again beat Purdue by double-digits, this time 95-84. It set up a big home date with Illinois. This game was defense-oriented and the Wolverines showed their ability to win any different way in a 57-45 victory. That set up an even bigger road trip to Iowa.
When the Wolverines left Iowa City with a tough 56-52 win they had sole possession of first place and were ranked third in the country. They were thinking about a whole lot more than just making the NCAAs now.
Michigan went to Minnesota and got a 66-54 win. Meanwhile, Michigan State knocked off Iowa, which gave the Wolverines a two-game cushion in the conference race.
The Spartans had also played spoiler against Illinois. They had the conference’s top scorer in Sam Vincent, a good young point guard in Scott Skiles and a tough inside player in Ken Johnson. Michigan State was coming on down the stretch and would eventually make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Magic Johnson was in East Lansing. Michigan was the next team to face the Spartans and what happened here would decide how the conference’s stretch drive would look.
The Wolverines escaped with a 75-73 win. Wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern locked up a conference championship that they would win by four games. Michigan won at Ohio State and then put Indiana out of its misery with a 73-71 win in the season finale.
Michigan was an easy choice to be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, sent to the Southeast Regional. They were hot, they were well-balanced and they were a legitimate challenger to Georgetown and St. John’s, the Big East powers who had defined the regular season nationally.
You could find one fly in the ointment. Michigan would play its opening weekend in Dayton. In a different era of NCAA play, the Selection Committee assigned Dayton, a 9-seed to this site. These days you can’t even play on your home floor if you’re the favorite, much less a heavy underdog. But it turned out a theoretical second-round game with the Flyers was the least of Michigan’s problems.
The biggest problem is that the young players were clearly uncomfortable at the tournament. They fell behind Fairleigh Dickinson 26-20 at the half, only shot 41 percent and allowed FDU to shoot 50 percent. If not for a decisive rebounding edge keyed by Tarpley, a #16 seed might have won a game in the very first year of the 64-team bracket. Michigan survived 59-55.
A silver lining to the night could be that Dayton wasn’t so lucky. Michigan would get a true neutral-court game against Villanova. But unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the Wildcats were starting a magical run that would carry them to a memorable national championship. Michigan again fell behind at halftime. Grant and Joubert fouled out. Michigan shot 51% and Tarpley’s 14/13 performance was his second good game of the weekend.
But Villanova would attempt 31 free throws to just five for Michigan. That translated into a 25-3 scoring edge and no one was going to overcome that. The Wolverine season ended with a thud.
The good news is that Michigan basketball was back and they validated themselves with another outright Big Ten title in 1986. The bad news? 1986 also looked like a rerun in how March ended, with a shaky first-round win and then a second-round exit—this one at the hands of Orr’s Iowa State no less.
At the end of the 1989 regular season, Frieder took the Arizona State job and was told by athletic director Bo Schembecler to forget about coaching in the tournament. Assistant Steve Fischer took over and the Wolverines won a national championship. The players and head coach from 1985 might have been gone by then, but they have a place in history as the group that put Michigan basketball on the map again.