It’s easy for fans at Crisler Center to let their gaze wander up to the rafters. After all, the retired numbers of Michigan basketball legends from Cazzie Russell to Glen Rice command appreciation. So do the surrounding maize and blue banners honoring the program’s Final Four berths and conference titles.
But only one national championship banner hangs in Crisler Center.
It took overtime, but the Wolverines lifted the trophy in 1989. To date, it’s the program’s lone national title. Michigan has since come close to returning to the top of college basketball, but the Wolverines have lost six of their seven championship game appearances.
The 1988-89 team took down No. 3 seed Seton Hall in the title game, solidifying itself as the greatest team in program history. The Fab Five era might have accounted for the most influential teams in program history and the 2013 team might have been the program’s most talented roster, but neither rival the greatness of a championship-winning team. Both fell one game short.
After debuting with a No. 3 national ranking in 1988, the Wolverines made an early-season statement at the Maui Classic with a double-digit win over No. 4 Oklahoma. But at times throughout the Big Ten schedule, a national title seemed improbable. Prior to the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines lost to conference foe Illinois twice by a combined 28 points and were swept by Indiana, After falling out of the AP Poll top 10 for a month, it was clear they weren’t even the Big Ten favorites, let alone a title frontrunner.
There were other hiccups along the way, including a shocking non-conference loss at the Utah Basketball Classic. After beginning the season 11-0, the Wolverines fell to Division II Alaska-Anchorage, 70-66, in a wakeup call loss. Despite its No. 2 national ranking, Michigan couldn’t afford to sleepwalk through the non-conference season.
The Wolverines’ next loss came two weeks later when they visited the Illini for a much-anticipated matchup between Nos. 2 and 6. Michigan lost in double-digit fashion — the beginning of a slump that saw the Wolverines lose three of four during January 1989. Through six conference games, Michigan posted a middling 3-3 record. It certainly lacked the shine of a title contender.
But the Wolverines rebounded well, winning nine of their next 11 games to set up a Senior Night heavyweight bout against No. 4 Illinois. It was the perfect opportunity to exact revenge after an early-season loss while appropriately sending off Rice — the only senior in the starting lineup.
Instead, it was Michigan’s most lopsided loss of the season. The Wolverines fell, 89-73, as boos rained down from fans at Crisler Center.
Then came the bombshell. Mere days before the NCAA Tournament tipped off, Michigan coach Bill Frieder left for the head coaching post at Arizona State in the dead of night. Athletic director Bo Schembechler fired Frieder after he agreed to coach the Sun Devils, paving the way for the promotion of interim coach Steve Fisher.
When Michigan arrived in Atlanta as a No. 3 seed for March Madness, most had already written the team off. Without their coach, the Wolverines appeared prone to an early-round upset. The emotional and structural changes of such a seismic change seemed too difficult to overcome so late in the season, but Michigan was up for the challenge.
The Wolverines topped Xavier and South Alabama on opening weekend, setting up a Sweet 16 date with No. 2 seed North Carolina — the team responsible for knocking Michigan out of the tournament in the previous two seasons. In the second half of the 1980s, the trio of tournament clashes helped form a budding rivalry.
At Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, it was Michigan who flipped the script of previous years. Led by Rice’s 34 points, the Wolverines pulled off the 92-87 upset and then beat No. 5 seed Virginia two days later, punching their ticket to the Final Four in Seattle. There, a second chance at an Illinois rematch loomed.
The last time Michigan faced Illinois, the Illini had spoiled Rice’s Senior Night. This time, with a national title game berth on the line, the Wolverines had the ball with 26 seconds left and the score knotted at 81.
Junior center Terry Mills caught a skip pass from junior guard Rumeal Robinson and hoisted a shot. It rimmed out, but sophomore forward Sean Higgins grabbed an offensive rebound and sank the game-winner, sending Michigan to the national championship game. In the process, the win wiped away any memory of the two regular season losses to Illinois.
Two days later, the Wolverines took the court against Seton Hall, which upset Duke in the other Final Four game, in search of the program’s first-ever title. Rice put together a heroic tournament run, posting a record 184 points across six games — an average north of 30 per game. Yet when Michigan put the ball in his hands in a tie game with just seconds left in regulation, his potential game-winning jump shot clanked off the rim.
Overtime awaited. And with only a minute left in the extra period, the Wolverines found themselves down three.
A bucket by Mills trimmed the deficit to one, and a defensive stop gave Robinson a chance to push the ball in search of a go-ahead basket. But instead, he was tripped and awarded a pair of free throws — the biggest foul shots of his life.
The junior sank both, cementing Michigan’s fate as the national champion.
The 1988-89 team served as a springboard for the Wolverines’ future success, but in the 32 years since, the program hasn’t achieved the same level of greatness. Following the season, Schembechler made Fisher the permanent head coach, laying the groundwork for the Fab Five’s arrival in 1991. Rice embarked on a decorated 15-year professional career, while Robinson, Higgins, Mills, Loy Vaught and Demetrius Calip all had NBA careers of their own.
Today, all that’s left of the team is the first thing fans see when they walk into Crisler Center — the 1989 national championship banner.