LOS ANGELES — Terry Mills had seen that long, helpless look in Billy Kennedy’s eyes before. Twenty-eight Big Dances ago.
Doubling Moe Wagner? Fine. There’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, all alone, from beyond the arc.
Chasing Charles Matthews? Groovy. There’s Duncan Robinson with space on the wings.
Sean Higgins then, Robinson now.
Glen Rice then, Abdur-Rahkman now.
Rumeal Robinson, then, Zavier Simpson now.
Mills then, Moe now.
And ain’t it funny how the Wolverines are starting to party like it’s 1989?
“We were kind of like this team in that you couldn’t key on one particular player because somebody else would go off,” Mills, the former Michigan All-American and key cog in the last Wolverines squad — the 1988-89 crew — to win a men’s basketball national championship, told Land of 10.
“And you look at [a Thursday win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16], you had Muhammad [with 24 points] and who was it, Moe that had 21 points? That kind of reminded me of the game that we had against Virginia [in the 1989 Southeast Regional final] and Glen had 32 and Sean Higgins had 31.
“So it’s one of those things — you really can’t guard everybody. [Once] we decided we were going to go with the hot hand, then, that’s when we defined our roles.”
‘They’re defining roles to become successful’
That’s when they took off, too. Like these Wolverines, the ones that put Aggies coach Kennedy out of his misery with a 27-point rout at Staples Center, the Michigan squad in the late winter of 1989 won nine of its last 12 to close the regular season.
Like these Wolverines, that team was a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament that flipped to another gear in the postseason under newly installed coach Steve Fisher, reeling off a six-game win streak in Bracketville that culminated with an 80-79 victory over Seton Hall for the national title.
‘I’m not sure that this team would even go back and watch games [Friday] night on the other side [of the bracket]. They’ll probably go do something else. They’re worried about Florida State.’
— Former Michigan star and current radio analyst Terry Mills on the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament focus
“Everybody thought they could do what Glen did, and we had our moments,” the 50-year-old Mills recalled. “They’re defining roles to become successful. It’s what they’ve done, and what we had to do.
“We had a lot of talent that we tried to get to jell together. I mean, you’ve got three McDonald’s All-Americans on that team — you have outstanding players that came out of [high school] and maybe they averaged 30-35 points a game, so everybody wanted the ball.”
And damn near everybody could chuck it, too. Mills was a first-round NBA draft pick in 1990, along with Rumeal Robinson and fellow Michigan big man Loy Vaught. Rice, who’d averaged 25.6 points per contest, was a first-round choice of the then-expansion Miami Heat in 1989.
While those Wolverines were loaded, they also hadn’t gone any further than the Sweet 16, where, as a 3 seed in the West in 1988, they were eliminated by second-seeded North Carolina in the regional semis.
Michigan was a 1 seed in the 1985 Big Dance and a 2 seed in 1986 — and wound up being upset in the second round on both occasions.
“And we were always kind of labeled as underachievers,” Mills recalled. “[They said], ‘You guys have got all that talent, and you can’t get it to work.’ And then once we did finally get it to work, we just gave people problems.”
‘This team doesn’t look ahead’
Mills says this Michigan bunch will give the rest of the field problems, too. Even if there’s only a handful of teams in the field left.
“I think this team doesn’t look ahead,” Mills said of the Wolverines (31-7), who take on ninth-seeded Florida State (23-11) late Saturday night with a berth in the Final Four on the line. “They’re worried about the team in front of them. They’re not worried about what this team is doing, what other teams are doing.
“I’m not sure that this team would even go back and watch games [Friday] night on the other side [of the bracket]. They’ll probably go do something else. They’re worried about Florida State. It’s not like, ‘Let’s get back and go watch Duke play.’
“You’ve got to be concerned about yourself, and that’s the way this team has been. You watch them in the locker room, they get a win, they have a little water fight, and after the little water fight, it’s like, ‘That’s it. It’s back to business.’ And that’s the way it is.
“The bus ride back, it’s just all business. It’s like, ‘We’ve still got work to do,’ that type of attitude. It’s not like, ‘We’re satisfied,’ and that’s it.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. From Ann Arbor to New York City to Wichita to Los Angeles, it’s as if nobody wants this magical bus ride to ever see the end of the line.
“That’s how it was with us,” Mills replied. “We just played and we won games and the next thing you know, it was like, ‘Oh, so it ain’t but four teams left?’
“That’s how it was with us, we just played. ‘Who’s next? Who’s next?’ And it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re going to the Final Four. There are only four teams left, there are only two on the other side.’ And we didn’t really realize that until [we got there]. We just kept playing and kept playing. All of a sudden, here we are.”
Almost 30 dances later, here we are again. And a little déjà vu never felt so damn good.