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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - Michigan Men

Glen Rice #4

The term ‘interim coach’ means different things to different people. For the 1988-89 Michigan men’s basketball team, it meant that Athletic Director Bo Schembechler fired head coach (and Michigan alum) Bill Frieder after he announced he was leaving Ann Arbor at the end of the season to take the Arizona State head coaching vacancy. Bo, in announcing Frieder’s dismissal emphatically stated that a Michigan man was going to coach the Wolverines in the 1989 NCAA Tournament; turning the Wolverines fortunes over to interim head coach Steve Fisher.

1988-89 National Champion Michigan Wolverines
AP Photo/Bob Jordan

From the 1984-85 season through the 1988-89 season, Michigan had done very well under Frieder: during the regular season. The NCAA Tournament was another story:

  • 1984-85: lost in the Round-of-32 as a #1 seed (Southeast Region) to (eventual National Champion) #8 seed Villanova.
  • 1985-86: lost in the Round-of-32 as a #2 seed (Midwest Region) to #7 seed Iowa State (coached by former Michigan head coach Johnny Orr).
  • 1986-87: lost in the Round-of-32 as a #8 seed (East Region) to #1 seed North Carolina.
  • 1987-88: lose in the Sweet 16 as a #3 seed (West Region) to #2 seed North Carolina.

For the 1989 NCAA Tournament, Michigan was again a #3 seed, this time in the Southeast Region. However, one thing that struck me as odd (as a 22 year old watching March Madness) was that Michigan didn’t send their pep band to Atlanta for the opening rounds. It was as if Michigan was mailing it in for The Big Dance.

However, interim head coach Steve Fisher and the Michigan team had other ideas. The Wolverines knocked off Xavier and South Alabama in the first 2 rounds, setting up a rematch with Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in the Sweet 16. Bo Schembechler had seen enough from the team’s performance in the first two rounds that Michigan’s pep band was dispatched to Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena for this match-up. North Carolina was a very good team (as evidenced by their 3 wins over Maryland, including a 30-point blowout in the 1989 ACC Tournament mercifully bringing an end to Bob Wade’s tenure in College Park). The Tar Heels played an excellent game, led by JR Reid’s 26 points; however, Michigan was better. In one of the best performances I’ve ever seen Glen Rice dropped in in 34 points and Rumeal Robinson had 13 assists as the Wolerines finally solved the Dean Smith problem 92-87; advancing to the Southeast Regional Finals.

Teams making deep NCAA Tournament runs typically have some level of luck. In Michigan’s case, this luck was #5 seed Virginia upsetting #1 seed (and National Champion favorite) Oklahoma in their Sweet 16 match-up. There was no letdown after the North Carolina victory, as the Wolverines routed the Cavaliers 102-65; getting Michigan and their interim coach to the Final Four in Seattle.

Glen Rice in the 1989 Southeast Regional Semi-Finals versus North Carolina
Getty Images

In the National Semi-Final Michigan faced off against Illinois, who had swept the Wolverines during the regular season. The Fighting Illini - labeled the Flying Illini by Dick Vitale - were probably the most talented of Lou Henson’s tenure: led by Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, and freshman Marcus Liberty. There would be no 3-peat for the Illini though, as Michigan knocked off Illinois 83-81 behind Glen Rice’s 28 points.

This set up the National Championship game against fellow Cinderella, Seton Hall. The Pirates were led by head coach PJ Carlesimo who had what I thought was a stupid superstition of changing out of his suit jacket into an ugly sweater-vest for the second half (note this was 12 years before Jim Tressel and his equally-ugly sweater-vest found their way to Columbus, Ohio). In a very tense back-and-forth game things were unsettled after 40 minutes, tied at 71. However, Michigan was 1-point better in overtime earning the Wolverines a 80-79 victory and the 1988-89 National Championship.

Glen Rice’s 184 points and 57.7% shooting (51.6% from 3) took the 12 Michigan men and their interim head coach Steve Fisher (whom Bo Schembechler made a Michigan man a week after the 1989 National Championship game).

As a quick follow-up, here are the FanPosts that I’ve put together so far. The idea is one article/FanPost a week for each B1G school, reflecting on their various contributions to a sport and a conference I got hooked on a whole lot of years ago.