The first season I remember watching Michigan basketball was 1988-89. Obviously, that was a pretty good year to get acclimated to the program. When Rumeal Robinson sank those free throws, I had no idea that just five years earlier Michigan basketball had been in a bad way for a number of years. After a successful run in the mid-70s that saw two Big Ten Conference Titles and a trip to the national championship game, the program went cold. From 1978-1984, Michigan did not make the NCAA Tournament. After three consecutive losing seasons in the Big Ten, legendary coach Johnny Orr left Michigan for more money at Iowa State (think Frieder took note?).
Bill Frieder took over the program from Orr for the 1981-82 season. Two years later, with the help of Tim McCormick, Roy Tarpley and Antoine Joubert, Michigan basketball made significant strides. For the first time since 1978, Michigan finished above .500 in the Big Ten and won the NIT. McCormick graduated that year but Tarpley and Joubert were poised to springboard Michigan basketball back into the elite. That was the last time Michigan turned the corner. I wasn’t there then to witness the rise of the program. I merely stole the exuberance of a NCAA Championship in my first year as a fan. I’m proud to say that I’m present and accounted for this time around. Michigan basketball is turning the corner so fast that, by March, the corner could be done turned.
It feels good to witness a tangible paradigm shift. In the last year-and-a-half, Michigan basketball has gone from a cornucopia of turnovers and ill-advised shots to an NCAA Tournament contender with shocking victories over UCLA and Duke. Michigan beat UCLA with a swarming defensive effort. Michigan outlasted Duke with superior fundamentals. Those two sentences read like crazy talk. Nobody is better than UCLA defensively. Nobody is better than Duke fundamentally. It’s difficult enough to try to beat those teams playing your style. Beating them playing their style is just freaky.
John Beilein is a better coach than Bill Frieder. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are better than Tarpley and Joubert. The supporting cast is also better this time around. That means that Michigan should be skipping the “winning the NIT” part of the rebuilding process and going right to the NCAA Tournament. It also means that recruits are taking notice.
In 1984, Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, and Loy Vaught were in High School. If it weren’t for Tarpley and Joubert, those guys might have gone somewhere else and Michigan wouldn’t have won the national championship in 1989. It remains to be seen what Harris and Sims will be able to accomplish at Michigan but do not forget that there are high school players all over the country who are seeing Michigan in a new light because of them. Five years from now, Michigan will be significantly better than it is now. That should scare a lot of folks in the Big Ten. Five years from now, my son is going to be nine—the same age that I was in 1989—and he just might swoop in and steal the same thing I stole 20 years ago.