The Michigan basketball team plays Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four semifinals Saturday in San Antonio.
Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard says the 2017-18 team isn’t the best Michigan basketball team ever. Land of 10 reporter Rachel Lenzi says this is the best Michigan basketball team in program history.
Q: IS THE 2017-18 MICHIGAN BASKETBALL TEAM THE BEST IN PROGRAM HISTORY?
CHRIS HOWARD: NO
Let me start off by saying that I am no Michigan basketball historian by any means. Keeping up with the who’s who of college basketball was the furthest thing from my mind as a teenager. However, once I stepped onto Michigan’s campus, I couldn’t help but soak up the history and tradition in all of its sports programs.
When you look at Michigan basketball, there are some defining moments throughout its history. Glen Rice and the 1989 national championship. The 1990 NBA Draft in which Rumeal Robinson was selected 10th, Loy Vaught 13th and Terry Mills 16th to make Michigan the third of only 10 schools that have had three or more players selected in the first round of the same draft. Trey Burke’s clean block of Louisville guard Peyton Siva — yes, I’m still bitter about that — and of course the cultural phenomenon of the Fab Five.
However, the true defining moment, or rather turning point, in its history is when it was discovered that four members of Michigan’s basketball team had taken money from booster Ed Martin totaling $616,000. At the time, it was said to have been the largest amount of illicit money in NCAA history. The NCAA imposed sanctions and records from the 1992 Final Four, the 1992-93 season, and 1995-99 seasons have been vacated.
Once coach Steve Fisher got the boot, Brian Ellerbe took over as interim coach less than five months after becoming an assistant coach. He won a Big Ten Tournament title in 1997-98, but his teams would never achieve better than seventh place in conference play.
Then came the Tommy Amaker years. If I’m being honest, I zoned out during these years. I’m sure most Michigan fans did, as well. Great guy, did what he could given the situation, but never really found his footing.
I point all of that out because during the time of those sanctions, Michigan basketball got knocked back into the Dark Ages. The gap between Michigan as a powerhouse basketball program and mediocrity is vast.
Enter Jon Beilein, a teacher, an offensive tactician whose first season resulted in the most losses in Michigan history to now being two games away from winning a national championship. He’s doing it with a “speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick” mentality. This season might be the greatest coaching job of his career. This team has achieved so much already that some are suggesting that this might be the greatest Michigan basketball team ever.
To that I say pump your brakes.
Two things keep these Wolverines out of that conversation, for now.
First, there have been no real marquee, classic matchups in the NCAA Tournament as in the past. This is no fault of their own; you can only play who is in front of you. It’s not Michigan’s fault that North Carolina and Xavier dropped the baby. The results made their path to the Final Four a tad less complicated but if those matchups would have taken place, and the Wolverines had come out victorious, then heading into the Final Four with those wins under their belt would change my consideration for best-ever team. They can still get that signature marquee win if they make it to the final to face either Kansas or Villanova.
Next, it comes down to talent. Rice’s team won the 1989 national championship. The Fab Five played in back-to-back Final Four appearances and redefined college basketball. John Beilein’s 2012-13 team, a young 4 seed, finished the season going 5-5 over its last 10 games and found its way to the National Championship Game. That team produced five first-round draft picks.
Those past teams had clear-cut first round NBA talent. This current Michigan team has one clear-cut professional prospect, and that’s Moritz Wagner. Charles Matthews still needs some work, but the talent and athleticism is there, without question.
Don’t get me wrong. This Michigan team we’ve watched all season is good, borderline great. If you looked up the word “team” in the dictionary, this group of Michigan players would stare back at you. You don’t set a school record with 32 wins if you’re not. To be among the greatest, you must do what some of the greats have done and what some of them couldn’t do.
With the potential of two games remaining and a chance at winning a national championship they can certainly prove me wrong. I’m praying like hell they do.