Whoo-whee," as Michigan Coach Johnny Orr might—and often does—exclaim. Battered first by Adrian Dantley and then bombed by Willie Smith, the undersized, underexposed Wolverines won the Midwest Regional in Louisville by defeating Notre Dame 80-76 and Missouri 95-88. Basketball is a team game and the best team won.
Until last week, no one outside the Big Ten really knew—or cared—how good Michigan was. Somebody should have listened to Northwestern Coach Tex Winter a few weeks ago when he said, "I wouldn't be surprised to see Indiana and Michigan both in the finals." In fact, Orr mentioned that possibility to Bobby Knight in a letter last month. Following the Wolverines' performances in Freedom Hall, we can understand why.
The Wolverines are small and young. But they are also quick, well balanced, determined and not easily intimidated. They may blow big leads as routinely as they build them, but they have an amazing ability to recover. Against Notre Dame, for instance, they fell behind by 11 points in the first half and eight in the second but came on to win without so much as a shudder. While Dantley nearly exhausted himself underneath with 31 points, five Wolverines scored in double figures.
The victory was especially pleasing to Orr, who is now 4-0 against Notre Dame's Digger Phelps and has taken the Irish out of the NCAA tournament twice in the last three years. Orr complains that Notre Dame and the ACC steal acclaim that rightfully belongs to himself, his team and his conference. "If I were coaching an independent," he said, "I'd be in the NCAA tournament every year."
March 29, 1976
Missouri reached the finals with an impressive 86-75 victory over Texas Tech, but the Tigers were barely visible in the first half against Michigan. The fast-breaking Wolverines roared off to a 10-point lead in the opening four minutes and raised it to 18 with 4:17 remaining. It was all going so easily that during timeouts Guard Rickey Green couldn't help but think ahead to Philadelphia. At half-time, Orr told his team to play as if the score were 0-0 instead of 50-37. The Wolverines did not respond to the warning, however. "It's one thing to say that," noted Forward John Robinson later, "but we could all see the scoreboard. We kind of went to sleep."
The Wolverines were awakened by the hot shooting of Willie Smith, the Big Eight's Most Valuable Player and the most complete guard in the country. Against Tech the 6'2" senior had merely been outstanding: 30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists. Against Michigan he was extraordinary, scoring 29 of his team's 51 second-half points.
Smith started firing 17 seconds after the second half began—15, 20 and 25 footers—and within eight minutes the score was 65-65. "I tried to tell the guys guarding him, 'Hey, babe, he's gonna miss sooner or later,' and pat them on the back," Robinson said. "But it crossed my mind that maybe he wouldn't."
The score was still deadlocked at 71 when Smith climaxed his performance by hitting two jump shots and a free throw to put the Tigers ahead by five with 7:54 to go. "I just wish there had been less time left," Missouri Coach Norm Stewart said later.
With so much time remaining, the Wolverines were not about to panic. In two minutes they had reclaimed the lead, 79-78, on Robinson's four straight free throws. Missouri was unable to hold on because it blew eight of its last 11 foul shots and because Smith finally began showing signs of mortality. In the last 5:19 of the game he missed a free throw that would have tied the score, committed a charge, had a shot blocked that was turned into a layup and double-dribbled in open court. Smith had done as much as any player could possibly do—scoring a career-high 43 points in the game—but he may have tried to do too much.
"It's better if everyone is involved in the offense," said Orr. "Dantley and Smith played great, but their teammates were left just standing around."
Orr got the kind of balance he enjoys. Green led with 23 points, Robinson had 21, 6'7" freshman Center Phil Hubbard 20 and reserve Guard Dave Baxter 18.
This kind of play will make Michigan a formidable entry in Philadelphia. But then there are three other such entries, two of them unbeaten, the other merely the defending national champion.