The 1976 Michigan basketball team is mostly remembered as the foil for Big Ten rival Indiana, as the Hoosiers ran to a historic undefeated season and finished it off by beating the Wolverines in the national championship game. But Michigan was more than just Robin to Indiana’s Batman. These Wolverines were a tough, physical group that used teamwork to trump individual stars on their way to the national final.
Michigan basketball was in a good place coming into the 1976 season. They had reached the NCAA Tournament each of the previous two years, a difficult feat when it took a Big Ten title to qualify in 1974 and then 1975 was the first year conferences could send multiple teams—to a bracket that was still only 32 teams.
Johnny Orr had been the head coach since 1969 and it was the program’s best success since the days of Cazzie Russell from 1964-66 when the Wolverines made two Final Fours and a national title game, before losing to John Wooden’s embryonic UCLA dynasty.
Michigan was led by Rickey Green in 1976, as Green averaged 20ppg. The backcourt had Wayman Britt and Steve Grote. Britt was a tenacious defender and the team captain and Grote chipped in some valuable points. What really helped the Wolverines stand out was the play of Phil Hubbard and John Robinson down low. Hubbard averaged 16 points/10 rebounds, while Robinson was good for 15/8 per game.
The preseason rankings had Michigan at #16. They opened with two SEC opponents. A win over a weak Vanderbilt team was followed by a tough 82-81 loss at Tennessee on the first Saturday of December. The Vols were a good team, on their way to the NCAA Tournament. Today it would just go in the books as a nice non-conference test. In 1976, with only a handful of at-large bids available for non-conference champions, every loss was a big one.
Five straight wins followed, but another loss to a future NCAA team on the road, this one at UNLV came. Michigan lost 108-94 on December 30 in their final game before starting Big Ten play.
The schedule was soft to open league play and Michigan began 3-0. They hosted Indiana on January 10 and dropped an 80-74 decision. The Hoosiers had gone unbeaten in the regular season in 1975 and coming into Ann Arbor for a win solidified their status as clear Big Ten favorites.
Michigan promptly started another three-game win streak including close games over good teams from Michigan State and Purdue. The Wolverines then suffered an aggravating 76-75 loss to a fairly pedestrian Illinois team. Michigan responded by dropping 100-plus points on Iowa and Wisconsin in home wins that set the stage for a trip to Bloomington.
The Wolverines nearly derailed history on February 7. They had the Hoosiers on the ropes before Indiana made a series of plays at the end of regulation to force overtime and then kept their win streak alive, 72-67. It was a gutwrenching loss that basically ended any conference championship hopes Michigan might have been harboring.
They came back and blasted Ohio State, which wasn’t much of an achievement, then did the same to Michigan State, which was. Another loss, this one 81-79 at Minnesota, gave reasons for some nervousness about the NCAA Tournament. But Michigan still finished the regular season ranked #9 and got a bid.
Seeding wasn’t in place in 1976, so we don’t know exactly what the selection committee thought of the Wolverines. They opened the tournament in Denton, TX against Wichita State. The Shockers had good overall team balance and a nice inside presence in double-double man Robert Elmore. But they were also 18-10 and only in the field as the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita shouldn’t have been a problem for Michigan.
They shouldn’t have, but they were. The Wolverines only shot 43% and were beaten on the boards. They trailed 41-35 at halftime and were still behind 73-72 when Elmore went to the line to shoot a one-and-one. He missed. With the season on the line, Michigan went to Green, who hit a baseline jumper with six seconds left for the 74-73 win.
That was the only game of the first weekend, and now it was on to Freedom Hall and Louisville for the regionals. Notre Dame was the opponent. The Fighting Irish didn’t have the same depth as the Wolverines, but Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley averaged 29 points/10 rebounds per game and was one of the best players in the country.
The sports fans of Michigan would get more familiar with “A.D.” when he first helped lead the Detroit Pistons to the NBA Finals in 1988 and then had to be traded out of town the next year to make room for Dennis Rodman as the Pistons ultimately won the title. On this March night in Louisville, Dantley nearly derailed Michigan all by himself.
Dantley scored 31 points and Michigan shot just 44% from the floor. But they again hung in, used their lineup balance and Green stood up to score 20 points. The Wolverines escaped with an 80-76 win and were one win from the Final Four.
Another big star awaited. Missouri’s Willie Smith wouldn’t have the pro career that Dantley had, but Smith was a terrific college basketball player. He averaged 25ppg for a team that won the Big Eight title and Smith was lighting up the NCAA Tournament. And he didn’t stop in the regional final against Michigan, scoring 43 points.
But Smith, like Dantley, was a one-man show and Michigan was a team. Green scored 23 points. Robinson and Hubbard were dominant, combining for 41 points/34 rebounds, more or less balanced between the two. Smith might have been named the regional’s outstanding player, but with Michigan grabbing a 13-point lead at halftime and winning 95-88, they were the ones going to the Final Four.
Indiana was the unbeaten team on everyone’s mind in Philadelphia, but there was another one of the foursome without a blemish. Rutgers came in with a record of 31-0. They were led by Phil Sellers, a 19/10 man down low and another 19-ppg scorer in guard Mike Dabney. Eddie Jordan was a skilled floor leader.
Once again, Robinson and Hubbard dominated. This time the combined numbers were 36/20 and Saturday’s national semifinals was never close. The Wolverine defense held Rutgers to 39 percent shooting, the score was 46-29 by halftime and it ended 86-70. In the other semifinal, Indiana finished off the UCLA dynasty, in their first year post-Wooden. For the first time in history, two teams from the same league would play for the national championship.
For twenty minutes of basketball, it looked like the third time might be the charm for Michigan. They led 35-29 at half, and Indiana’s great backcourt defender, Bobby Wilkerson, had left the game with a head injury.
But Michigan couldn’t provide the clear contrast in styles they had in earlier big wins. Indiana might have had the national Player of the Year in Scott May, but they weren’t top-heavy reliant on him like Notre Dame and Missouri had been on their stars. Indiana’s inside talent, Kent Benson, Tom Abernathy, and May, couldn’t be bulldozed. Indiana did all the good things Michigan did and did them better. They took over the second half and won 86-78.
This was still a talented team that had achieved a lot and had more in front of them. 1977 looked like their year, as everyone came back and they were #1 in the country before a stunning regional final loss to UNC-Charlotte. That defeat probably rates as the bigger disappointment than even the national championship game loss since it looked like the 1977 title was Michigan’s to take.
But with or without a national title, the group captained by Britt, led by Green and anchored by Hubbard and Robinson, gave the folks of Ann Arbor a lot of good basketball.