We don't seem to talk about it anymore, but the Michigan basketball teams of the mid-to-late 1980s, under Bill Frieder, were consistently ranked in the AP top 5. But like the Red Wings teams of the early 1990s and 2000s, Michigan's talent never seemed to go anywhere in the NCAA tournament. Frieder's teams would get #1 or #2 seeds in the tournament, and then flame out in the first or second rounds.
The 1984-85 team was the first of those quintessential Frieder teams. 7 players from that squad were drafted: Roy Tarpley (7th overall 1986, the 1985 Big Ten Player of the Year, #42 in the pic to the right), Gary Grant (15th overall 1988), Richard Rellford, Butch Wade, Antoine Joubert, and Robert Henderson. The team went 26-4 overall and 16-2 in the Big Ten.
Michigan entered the 1985 NCAA tournament—its first trip to the Big Dance in eight years—on a roll. They had won 16 straight games to enter the tournament, were ranked #2 in the country (second only to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown), were seeded #1 in the Southeast region, and defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round 59-55.
They then faced an unheralded #8-seeded Villanova team in the Round of 32, coached by Rollie Massimino. Villanova had lost 10 games, but 2 of those were to #1 Georgetown and 3 were to #3 St. John's, led by Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington.
Here's an excerpt from the Chicago Tribune's account of that game, which Villanova won 59-55. Frieder blamed his team's youth and inexperience on the big stage for the loss:
"It helps playing against Patrick Ewing twice a year," said Villanova center Ed Pinckney, referring to Georgetown`s 7-foot All-America. "That`s enough to set you up to go against the best..."
"Our conference definitely prepared us," said Wildcat forward Dwayne McClain, whose deadly outside shooting led to 20 points and a wrecked Michigan defense. "We have great centers and we have great guards in our league. I didn`t think we were underdogs."
Coach Rollie Massimino`s experienced team, which starts three seniors, showed its poise by not panicking while going scoreless for the opening 7 minutes 44 seconds of the second half. That drought enabled the Wolverines to build a 35-30 advantage, their biggest of the game.
"I'd hoped we could get ahead and speed up the tempo," said Michigan coach Bill Frieder. "But we couldn`t sustain it, and they were perfect at countering almost everything we tried the rest of the way. In all honesty, I think their six straight years in the NCAAs and our inexperience showed."
Michigan, which started three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman, won the National Invitation Tournament last year but was making its first NCAA appearance since 1977.
"Gary Grant was an example of a freshman," said Frieder, whose team finished 26-4. "He`s got great talent, but he`s got a lot to learn."
There was no shot clock in those days, which allowed Villanova to slow down the high-flying Michigan offense:
Grant went scoreless for the first time in his collegiate career and fouled out. Michigan`s point total was its lowest this season. Wolverine center Roy Tarpley got only 2 of his team-high 14 points in the second half.
"I thought if the game would be in the 60s or 70s, we`d be okay," said Frieder. "But it turned out to be the type of game I really expected. They`ve lost 10 games, but they've lost to teams like Georgetown, St. John`s, Syracuse, Maryland. They have 10 losses, but they don`t look like it."
This is the third time Villanova`s seniors have advanced to the final 16 teams, missing last year when they lost to Illinois. Massimino said he thought the past performances were a big factor.
"You have to feel sorry for Grant," said Massimino. "Experience is very important in a game like this. When these guys were freshmen, we had trouble getting out of close ones. I told my players to try and relate to that before the game."
Villanova never relinquished the lead after going up 38-37 on a free throw by Gary McLain with 7:32 left.
"Thank God the shot clock was off," said Massimino, whose Wildcats squeezed every possible second from each possession. "These kids have been through this sort of thing before."
Villanova's poise was evident at the free-throw line, where they hit 12 of 15 in the final 2:10. The Wildcats made 25 free throws in the game, compared to just three for the Wolverines.
"We really had trouble adjusting to the slow pace," said Michigan guard Antoine Joubert. "We like to run, and we`re used to it. When we tried to get it inside to Tarpley, they were really sagging on him."
In a later recollection, the Wildcats' Ed Pinckney agreed that Villanova's experience and low-tempo strategy were the keys to victory:
"Everyone on the team knew we’d beat Michigan. We kept telling each other, "We play Georgetown and St. Johns. They don’t." The guys on Michigan were mostly freshman and sophomores. Our guys – particularly the seniors – were indignant about that – that they were so young and favored over a veteran team like ours. Michigan was athletic. Thy wanted to play a fast-paced game. But we were feeling like, "You guys are the underclassmen. We’re not going to let you dictate the pace of this game." We didn’t feel they could apply the kind of pressure Georgetown does. We were determined to execute properly and we did. That game was almost fun. We were confident. We didn’t feel pressure at all."
Villanova, of course, ended up defeating Georgetown for their first national championship, in a game that is the second-biggest point-spread upset in NCAA championship game history.
Here's hoping that Gary Grant and the rest of those 1985 stars are in the Alamodome tonight. Roy Tarpley can't join them because, after a troubled pro career filled with drug and alcohol problems, he died in 2015. It's sad for many reasons—from today's standpoint, especially because Roy Tarpley would have been an outstanding player in Beilein's system: a 7-footer who had a great all-around game.
The game is different now, and Villanova today is much better coached than those Frieder teams of the '80s. But if they could do it us, why can't we do it to them?