Bill Frieder had put Michigan back on the map in basketball with a Big Ten championship in 1985. The 1986 Michigan basketball team validated that achievement with a second consecutive conference title before a surprise early NCAA Tournament loss to a familiar foe.
After the program had been in the national elite in 1976-77—making the NCAA title game in ’76 and winning the Big Ten a year later—they fell off the map. Head coach Johnny Orr left for Iowa State. Michigan basketball hit a low point in 1982 when they went 7-20.
The rebuilding of Frieder had shown some promise in 1984, with an NIT title. The ’85 Big Ten title had earned them a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before an upset loss to Villanova in the second round—an upset that didn’t look quite as bad after the Wildcats won the national championship.
Michigan was built around an outstanding big man in Roy Tarpley, who averaged 16 points/9 rebounds per night and was an intimidating shotblocker. They had two guards who excelled both in scoring and distributing the ball. Gary Grant and Antoine Joubert were each good for 12 a night. Their playmaking skills were underscored by the fact Joubert set a school record for assists in 1985, Grant broke it in 1986 and broke it again his senior year of 1988.
Butch Wade provided rebounding depth, as Richard Reilford was a steady contributor at the forward spot. And there was a freshman in Glen Rice who was just got his toe in the water this season, but would eventually be the star of a national championship team by his senior year.
Michigan opened the season ranked third in the nation and went to Hawaii for a two-game tournament. They barely escaped Virginia Tech by a point, when Grant blocked a shot by Tech’s Dell Curry (father of current NBA MVP Steph Curry) before beating Kansas State 70-58.
The Wolverines went on to Springfield, MA, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, for the Tip-Off Classic with Georgia Tech. This single game was once the focal point of the early season college basketball schedule and the Yellow Jackets were ranked #1 in the country. The game was ugly and didn’t live up to the hype, but Michigan won it 49-44. They moved up to #2 in the polls.
The rest of the non-conference schedule was relatively easy, though a 105-85 win over Cleveland State looks more impressive in retrospect, now that we know what the Vikings ended up making the Sweet 16 in March. This win sent Michigan into Big Ten play with a 10-0 record.
On New Year’s Day, the more heralded Michigan football team beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and finished #2 in the final polls. The basketball team would take the floor the next night in Indiana looking to get an early lead in the conference schedule.
Bob Knight’s Indiana team had suffered through one of the worst seasons of his tenure in 1985, missing the NCAA Tournament. But they were playing better this season and in Steve Alford and Daryl Thomas had two core players of the team that would win the national title one year later. Michigan went into Bloomington on a Thursday night and came out with a 78-69 win.
A victory at mediocre Ohio State followed and the Wolverines came home to beat good NCAA Tournament-bound teams in Illinois and Purdue. The Illini had a talented front line with Ken Norman, Anthony Welch and Efrem Winters and were the one team in the conference that could match the Wolverines on sheer manpower. The Boilermakers were young, but three sophomores, Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell and Everette Stephens, formed the core of a team that would win a Big Ten title of its own in 1988.
Then Michigan did the kind of thing that often drove its supporters crazy and gave its critics ammunition. They lost to a bad Minnesota team. A victory at Iowa, another good team followed, but the Wolverines then saw their defense fall apart in a 91-79 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans had a guard in Scott Skiles who could score and distribute with a fury and this game was a part of his successful push for Big Ten MVP.
A soft part of the schedule against Northwestern and Wisconsin provided easy wins and that was followed by a narrow escape, 80-79, at Purdue. But the third conference loss came in Champaign, as Illinois beat Michigan 83-79.
Two more recovery blowouts came at the hands of Minnesota and Iowa, the latter being a pretty good team. It was time for revenge against Michigan State as the Spartans came to Ann Arbor. But Skiles had other ideas. The Wolverines played poorly against their rival again, losing 74-59.
A conference race that Michigan was heavily favored to win was now up for grabs. With four games to play, Michigan and Indiana were tied at 10-4, with Michigan State giving chase at 9-5.
The Wolverines had an easy three-game run in Wisconsin, Northwestern and Ohio State, although after some of the eggs that had been laid, perhaps nothing should have been taken for granted. In this case though, the players kicked it into high gear, scoring 282 points in the three games, and this in the era prior to the three-point shot and when the shot clock was 45 seconds. Maybe there’s something to be said for the notion that the way to improve offense is to make teams learn to actually run one. Just sayin…
Anyway, Indiana also won three in a row, so Michigan State was out and everything came down to a Saturday afternoon in Crisler Arena. Michigan and Indiana, winner-take-all for the Big Ten title in the era when the conference didn’t play a tournament.
There were no worries about focus this time. Michigan was easily the more talented team and they were ready. Tarpley had his way underneath, scoring 21 points and the Wolverines got ten offensive rebounds in the first half alone. Michigan led 44-25 by halftime and won 80-52. They were Big Ten champs for the second straight year, the first time the program had won a repeat title since the days of Cazzie Russell in the mid-1960s.
Michigan was seeded #2 in the Midwest Regional. The bracket favorite was Kansas, with their excellent sophomore forward Danny Manning and the regionals would be in Kansas City, making for a difficult road to the Final Four. It turned out, the Wolverines never made it to KC.
They were sluggish in the first round against Akron, trailing 32-30 at the half before recovering to win 70-64, needing 14 points from the freshman Rice to help escape.
In the round of 32, their old pal Johnny Orr was waiting with Iowa State. The Cyclones were seeded #7, but their backcourt was Jeff Hornacek and Jeff Grayer. Hornacek would eventually be a starter on Utah Jazz teams that made the NBA Finals with Karl Malone and John Stockton. Grayer was an outstanding college player, an explosive scorer.
Tarpley did his job down low, owning the inside, scoring 25 points and hauling in 14 rebounds, keying a 33-17 edge on the boards for Michigan. But Iowa State shot 61 percent from the floor. The Wolverines trailed by nine at the half and a second-half push came up short. The season ended with a 72-69 loss.
It was a bitter loss and of this core cast of players, Rice would be the only one left when Michigan found its March vindication with their NCAA title run after Frieder left and Steve Fischer was appointed interim coach just prior to the tournament in 1989. But it can’t be overlooked that this core group—Tarpley, Grant, Joubert & Co., along with Frieder—were the ones that put Michigan basketball back in the national conversation, underscored by their consecutive Big Ten championships.