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March Memories 5: The 80s End

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to move past 1988 a bit quickly as the Big Ten had a mediocre performance.

Five teams got bids. Indiana dropped a 13/4 matchup to Richmond Spiders in the first round. Illinois (3) lost to Villanova (6) in the second round. Iowa (5) made the Sweet 16 and got some (very watered-down) revenge against UNLV (4) in the second round, but were blown out by top seed Arizona (with former Iowa head coach Lute Olson). Michigan (3) fell to North Carolina (2) for the second straight year (hold that thought), this time in the Sweet 16. Finally, Purdue (1), who went 16-2 in Big Ten play, and was 29-3 entering their Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas State (4), was undone by Mitch Richmond. Two quick thoughts:

  1. Gene Keady never made a Final Four, so it is easy to have fun at his expense. However, this team deserves some love. Before the "Baby Boilers," the three-headed monster of Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell, and Everette Stephens had a pretty good run from '85-'88. Instead of "What if Hummel stayed healthy?" here the question is "What if KSU wasn't completely insane from 3?" Purdue lost 73-70 in a game where KSU was 8-10 from 3 point range.
  2. Nobody remembers Michigan's PG Gary Grant, but he may have been the best all-around player in the Big Ten in the 80's. Two-time all-conference, two-time Big Ten DPOY. There was a ton of talent in the league this decade, (and, obviously, Isiah Thomas only stayed two years), but Grant was the epitome of a floor general and was a four-year starter during a 100-29 run for Michigan.

The big story of the '88 tournament though was Kansas's miracle run as a 6-seed behind Danny Manning ("Danny and the Miracles"). Much like 1985, the title game featured a big upset over a conference foe who had already won two games against the underdog. Kansas shot 64% from the floor and rode Manning's 31 pt, 18 reb performance to an unlikely title. [That said, Kansas was the preseason favorite in the Big 8 but had to overcome some injuries. They ended the regular season on an 8-2 run, and were not your normal Cinderella.] The first half of the title game was absolutely scintillating. Kansas was lights out and Oklahoma managed to stay even mostly because of unsung starter Dave Sieger's 6 three-pointers. It was 50-50 at the break. Twenty of the most frenetic minutes of high-quality hoops you'll ever see.

*****

1989 is my choice for the best season in Big Ten history.

We'll get the five schools that made the NCAA in a minute. Quick word about two that didn't. Wisconsin showed signs of life for the first time in 15 years, going 18-12 (8-10) with wins over Top-10 Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan squads in Madison. The 1-2 punch of Danny Jones and Trent Jackson probably deserved an at-large bid.

Ohio State would've clearly made the tournament but for a horrific neck injury to star guard Jay Burson in a Feb. game vs. Iowa. OSU was 17-6/6-4 entering that game, with Burson averaging 22 ppg. However, without him OSU ended the regular season on an 8 game losing streak, and missed the tournament.

Still, the five who made the Big Dance represented the league to the tune of a 15-4 overall record, with four teams making the Sweet 16, two the Final Four, and Michigan winning it all. Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa all spent part of the season in the top 5, and Minnesota's Sweet 16 run was a prelude to an even better 1990. Each team merits a few words:

  • Iowa's (4) second round loss was a double OT classic, 102-96, to NC State (5). Iowa's senior trio of Roy Marble, B.J. Armstrong, and Ed Horton combined for 76 points, but Rodney Monroe's 40 pt. performance helped see the Wolfpack through. This was the second-to-last game in Jim Valvano's coaching career.
  • Minnesota won their last three regular season games to square their conference record at 9-9 which was just enough to grab an 11 seed. Once there, the very young Gopher team made the most of it, beating 6-seed Kansas State and 14-seed Siena (fresh off an upset of 3-seed Stanford) before falling to Duke in the Sweet 16.
  • Indiana won the Big Ten at 15-3. At one point, they were 3-4 before going 22-3 over the rest of the regular season. It was not a vintage Indiana squad, but a 6-1 Big Ten record in close games (5 pts or closer) helped them win the title despite being swept by Illinois. The limitations (especially a lack of presence inside) showed, though, when Seton Hall rolled past them 78-65 in the Sweet 16.
  • Illinois and Michigan each have an episode of Big Ten Elite dedicated to their teams from this year. Their stories are well-known. The Flyin' Illini climbed to #1, but an injury to Kendall Gill and a 1-3 stretch in late Jan./early Feb. conspired to deprive them of the Big Ten title. Still, they grabbed a 1-seed and advanced to the Final Four rallying from a seven-point halftime deficit in a hard fought win over 2-seed Syracuse. [I had every intention of providing video of that game, but I can't find it on YouTube. *shakes head*]
  • Michigan was preseason #3, but had a flaky season, including a loss to Alaska-Anchorage...in Salt Lake City. Then, of course, there was head coach Bill Frieder taking the Arizona State job just before the tournament and being fired by AD Bo Schembechler. What few recall is that, besides the narrow wins vs. Illinois and Seton Hall in the Final Four, Michigan also was pushed to the limit by 14-seed Xavier in the opening round and 11-seed South Alabama in the second round. And also, more expectedly, by 2-seed UNC in the Sweet 16, where Michigan got revenge for losses in '87 and '88.

Since Sean Higgins's putback vs. Illinois and Rumeal Robinson's FTs vs. Seton Hall are both iconic, let's dig a little deeper and spotlight just how incredible Glen Rice was during the tournament. His 184 points are still a single tournament record. Check out the South Alabama and UNC games. Between the two, Rice scored 70 points on 29-44 shooting from the floor. He was 11-19 from 3, including 8-12 vs. UNC.

[If you did the math, you realize that means he score 1 point (!) from the line in these two games.]

Michigan/South Alabama (which was tied at 80 with 2:30 to play):

Michigan/UNC: