In March of 1987, Platoon won the Oscar for Best Picture, U2’s Joshua Tree rocked the radio airwaves and Les Miserables debuted on Broadway.
In college basketball, Purdue and Michigan hooked up in the regular season finale at Crisler Arena in a game dripping with Big 10 Title and NCAA Bubble implications.
Does that sound familiar? Twenty-two years ago, these two proud Big 10 basketball programs played a game with basically the same stakes that are on the line tonight.
For the nuance-inclined, subtle differences exist between tonight’s scenario and 1987. Both games close the Crisler season, but in 1987 it was also the final game of the season. Two games, plus the league tournament, remain for both teams to play this season. In 1987, Purdue had already clinched a share of the title, but needed to beat Michigan to claim the outright championship, or else share it with hated Indiana. This season, Purdue trails the title chase by a game. If they keep winning, the Boilers likely will force a winner-take-all showdown against Michigan State in next week season’s finale. Michigan’s place on the bubble was not exactly the same either. Since it was the final game of the season, Michigan was in a ‘won or else’ mode that day in 1987. Win or lose tonight, Michigan still has some season left to win or lose a bid.
Those details aside, though, it’s hard to shake the comparison at how similar the situations appear 22 years apart as we head into tonight’s critical contest. And, I don’t need a better reason to wax poetic about Michigan sports history, so let’s jump in the Way Back Machine and revisit 1987, when, by the way, I was in the middle of my freshman year in high school.
A Rebuilding Season for Michigan
The 1986-87 basketball season was a transition year for the Michigan program. Fresh off back-to-back Big 10 titles, the Wolverines were playing without stars Roy Tarpley, Butch Wade and Richard Rellford for the first time in four seasons. Coach Bill Frieder had lined up an impressive recruiting class, but blue chip products Terry Mills and Rumeal Robinson both had the sit out the year due to Proposition 48 standards.
The cupboard was hardly bare, however. Michigan had four-year starter Antoine ‘The Judge’ Joubert to lean on. Gary Grant and Glen Rice, the last two Big 10 Freshman of the Year award winners, were in the rotation as was sharp shooting Garde Thompson, who took advantage of the newly introduced three-point shot to boost his scoring production for the team. Underclassmen Mark Hughes and Loy Vaught stepped in to front court positions for the vacated seniors, but those two were just solid role players at that point in their careers, not guys ready to carry a team from the center or power forward positions.
Still, that’s a pretty talented squad. What if you dropped that core of players into the Big 10 today? I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to state they would win the Big 10. But, back then, in a testament to the strength of college basketball in general and the power of the Big 10 in specific, the 1986-87 Wolverines struggled because they did not have the top to bottom fire power of the league elites that season like Purdue, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa all of whom began the year in the AP top 15. Despite a lineup that in retrospect looks pretty darn good, Michigan hovered around the .500 mark in league play for much of the season.
Struggling out of the Gate
Michigan fans found out early on in the season just how short handed the program was compared to the two previous seasons. The Maize and Blue slogged their way through their pre-conference schedule. Suffering a pair of bad losses to Western Michigan and Middle Tennessee State, Michigan entered Big 10 play with just a 6-3 record. To compare, the previous two seasons saw Michigan rack up a combined 18-1 record in pre-Big 10 play.
The team continued their ragged and flat play once the league season began, dropping three of the first four Big 10 games. The final game in that run was a heartbreaking loss to Indiana at Crisler. IU had dominated Michigan, carving out a 51-34 halftime lead. Spurred by the hot second half shooting of Joubert and Thompson, both of whom up ended with 20 points, the Wolverines clawed their way back into the game and managed to forge a one point lead in the closing seconds. Hoosier marksman Steve Alford drilled a shot as time expired to drive a dagger through Michigan’s heart. I can still see IU coach Bobby Knight sprinting and laughing his way off the court. He had no love loss for Frieder and the Wolverines, and he knew his charges had stolen a big game on the road.
The loss dropped the club to 7-6 overall. After dominating the Big 10 for two years, Michigan would be in scramble mode the rest of the season just to make it back into the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan did rebound from that killer defeat and reeled off six straight wins to close out January. The highlight of that run was a high scoring 91-88 win over top ranked Syracuse. Armed with Sherman Douglass, Howard Triche and Rony Seikaly, not to mention super freshman and Detroit product Derek Coleman, the Orange came into Crisler Arena right as Michigan’s season was heading south. Behind 23-point games from Grant and Thompson and another 19 from Rice, the Wolverines sprung the upset in one of the best games ever played at Crisler Arena. The win helped spark the winning streak that got the Maize and Blue back into the tournament discussion.
Unfortunately, Michigan found consistency hard to discover that winter. They fell hard in most of their road games. They had spent two full seasons thumping their league brethren, but spent the 1987 Big 10 campaign getting their comeuppance from all those teams bent on revenge. February trips to Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State all resulted in lopsided losses. Even a bad Michigan State team thumped the Wolverines, torching them for 91 points in a blowout victory at the venerable Jenison Fieldhouse. When Michigan dropped a home game to Illinois by 14 points on March 4, Michigan fell to 18-11 overall, and a mediocre 9-8 in league play. The program had lost just six conference games the previous two seasons combined, but fell eight times—with most of the defeats being fairly one sided—in 1987.
How to Clinch a Bid with Style
Heading into the season finale, the season was not dead. The conventional wisdom of the day held that a spot in the NCAA field was Michigan’s if they could secure just one more win. No other Big 10 team with a 10-8 record had ever been denied a bid in the years since the league was allowed to send more than one team to the tournament. Michigan’s path to the tournament was clear. Win and they would be in the field.
One slight problem stood in their way: The Purdue Boilermakers. The Boilers had a sweet team that season. They entered the game with a heady #3 national ranking. They dominated most of the Big 10 with a trio of scorers: Troy Lewis, a deadly long range shooter, Everette Stephenson, a lanky, long player in the mold of Tayshaun Prince and Todd Mitchell, a Toledo, Ohio product with an above-the-rim game to backup his steady mid range jumpers. Behind these three, the Boilers quickly took the mantle from Michigan as the team to beat in the Big 10. Almost two months to day, the Boilers destroyed Michigan at Mackey Arena, cruising to an easy 89-77 win.
Purdue had already clinched a share of the Big 10 Title, but they would not be resting on their laurels in the finale in Ann Arbor. With a loss, they would be forced to share the crown with arch rival Indiana. That was something the Boilers would have liked to have avoided.
Instead, Purdue stepped in front of a Maize and Blue buzz saw. With their season and tourney bid hopes on the line, Michigan played its best game of the season. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Wolverines dominated the Big 10 Champs. A 25-5 run during the first half paved the way to a 48-21 halftime lead. Michigan did not let up in the second half and held leads as high as 38 points three different times in the contest. When the final horn sounded, Michigan had a convincing 104-68 win.
A Grand Finale for the Judge
The maestro of the afternoon for Michigan was Joubert. The Judge, playing in his last game at Crisler Arena dropped 30 points on the Boilers.
Joubert came to Ann Arbor amid tons of hype. One of the best scorers in Detroit Public School League history, Joubert was a product of Detroit Southwestern and followed his teammate Rellford to Michigan. With his light skin and curly hair, Joubert carried a suave Creole look. He was unmistakable. Stories regularly flew around that he would enter pubs around Ann Arbor wearing a fur coat. His fashion statement on the court often involved wearing multiple wrist bands up and down his arms.
He had a nice college career, but Joubert struggled to live up to the big time billing people had tagged him with as an incoming freshmen. When he was on, he could fill it up with the best of him. When he was not, he drove Michigan fans crazy with his shot selection and lackadaisical attention to detail relative to the other parts of the game. Do you remember Kelly Tripuka? As a pro with the Pistons, Tripuka often would drop 20-25 points and do so without grabbing a rebound and dishing out an assist. That was Joubert’s game as well. He also was a bit chunky. He famously feuded with Michigan State guard Scott Skiles who once chided him as ‘fat boy’ during one of their games against each other.
In his Crisler Arena Swan Song, Joubert had his game rocking. He drove to the goal finishing with finger roll lay-ups, banked home mid-range jumpers and killed the Boilers from long range draining six three pointers. It was a fitting home finale for one of Michigan’s more compelling players in program history.
A few hours after the Purdue game, the Selection Committee unveiled the brackets. The good news for Michigan was their dismantling of Purdue had indeed put them into the field. The bad news was that as a #9 seed, they drew Navy and David Robinson in the first round. And, with a win, they would play #1 seed North Carolina in Charlotte. It was a tough a draw as anyone else received for the first weekend of play.
The momentum from the Purdue win carried over into the first round game against the Naval Academy. Michigan broke open a close game by dominating the second half en route to a 97-82 win. Thompson drilled 9 treys and Loy Vaught punctuated the game with a thunderous dunk in the final minute that snapped the rim from the backboard. The next morning in class, all the Ohio State fans were crying that Vaught deserved a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Whatever.
North Carolina proved a different story, kicking Michigan out of the tournament with a 109-97 victory. The Heels scored the game’s first 12 points and never looked back. Michigan did get to within 6 early in the second half, but the Heels kicked it up a second notch and the Wolverines never threatened.
Despite an uneven season and a blowout loss eliminating them from the tournament, Michigan had planted the seeds for another great team. With Mills and Robinson in the fold the following year, the Wolverines crashed the Sweet Sixteen. We all know what happened in 1989.
Yet, I have a soft spot for the 1987 crew that bridged the gap between great UM teams. And, I’ll never forget Joubert’s flair or his scoring binge in his final game at Crisler that shot the Wolverines into the Big Dance.
Here’s hoping that the Wolverines get a similar effort tonight as again they try to shoot themselves into the tournament and shoot the Boilermakers out of Big 10 title contention.