There was a time—March 29, 1976 to be exact—when a Michigan victory over Indiana would have given the Wolverines the NCAA championship and cause for wild celebration. But when that victory finally came last Thursday night in Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena, Michigan's first over the Hoosiers since 1974, nobody cut down the nets or hoisted a trophy. Frankly, Michigan has more important things to worry about these days than Indiana. Although the young Hoosiers are improving, it is the veterans of Minnesota and Purdue who are harrying the Wolverines.
Just consider the results of last week, in which Michigan won twice, Minnesota once and Purdue split. All of this left the Wolverines (10-1) and Gophers (7-1) essentially tied for the Big Ten lead with one loss each, and the Boilermakers (8-2) right behind with two. But Purdue, improved by the return of senior Guard Bruce Parkinson, who was injured last season, is the only team to beat the Gophers. Minnesota looks more imposing than a 12-foot snowdrift with Center Mike Thompson and Guards Ray Williams and Osborne Lockhart combining for 56 points a game. (Alas, the Gophers are on NCAA probation and cannot participate in the playoffs.)
Minnesota, in fact, is the very place the Wolverines were headed on Monday night after they had defeated the Hoosiers 89-84 and Ohio State 93-72. Those victories were especially gratifying to Wolverine fans because they extended Michigan's overall record to 17-2, protected its Top Ten and Big Ten ranking and, most important, halted a slump that had produced three closer-than-expected wins and one wider-than-expected defeat (99-87 to Northwestern). "If we had lost to Indiana," said Coach John Orr, "we might not have played .500 ball the rest of the way."
Much has been expected of Michigan this season. This is, after all, the team that finished second in the nation last year and was picked by many to move up a notch this year. Providence thought so much of its double-overtime defeat of the Wolverines in late December that it printed a special pamphlet telling all about it. Orr may fret about complacency, defensive lapses and offensive consistency, but can a lineup that includes Rickey (Shake 'n Bake) Green, Phil (The Hub) Hubbard and Steve (Grrrr) Grote be all bad?
February 14, 1977
Hardly. There were plenty of indications last week that the Wolverines were starting to ease on down, ease on down the road. Michigan ended a five-game losing streak to Indiana by sinking 10 consecutive free throws in the final two minutes to break a 79-all tie. Against Ohio State, ferocious defense helped turn the game into a fast-break drill—29 of the 39 baskets came on dunks, layups and tip-ins. As for individual heroics, Green matched his career high of 32 points on Thursday, and on Saturday his apartment mate and former high school teammate, Forward John Robinson, scored his season high of 22. One wonders what Robinson has been putting in those tuna casseroles he whips up for dinner.
If there was a disappointment last week it was the play of the sophomore center, Hubbard, who fouled out against Indiana and scored only 17 points in two games. Orr was encouraged, though, that the Wolverines could manage so well without him.
When Michigan is at its best, it is the most exciting team in the country, which could never be said of the school's football team. The Wolverine offense is a razzmatazz of alley oops, slam dunks and bombs away from 25 feet. On defense Michigan overplays, double-teams and tries to block any shot that does not scratch the ceiling. And even though there often seems to be chaos on the court, every bit of the attack is carefully programmed.
The player who makes it go is the 6'1" Green, the team leader in scoring, steals and assists who also ranks improbably high in dunks and blocked shots. There are better shooters, defenders and playmakers among the nation's guards but none is faster, quicker or generates more excitement. "He moves so fast," says an opponent, "you don't know where he's coming from."
Surprisingly, Green was not hotly pursued while he was leading his Chicago high school team to the Illinois state championship. Michigan was the only Big Ten university to offer a scholarship, but even it did not get him until he improved his scholastic standing during two All-America seasons at Vincennes Junior College. Last year he and Indiana's Scott May were the only unanimous choices on the all-conference team.
Because of his rebounding, Hubbard may be even more valuable to the team than Green. With Kent Benson at Indiana and Thompson at Minnesota, Hubbard is only the third-best center in the league but, if given the opportunity, he could probably become the best forward. The skinny 6'7" sophomore showed his promise at that position while playing for the U.S. Olympic team. Michigan would gladly make the change, but so far its recruiting efforts have turned up no one better. Hubbard has an eye on a few prospects in his home state of Ohio, though. "I'm getting tired of being beat up," he says, "but if that is where the team needs me, I'll stay. I just hope to get a chance before I leave to show what I can do at forward."
Green's 21.1 scoring average and Hubbard's 18.8 make them the only Wolverines in double figures, but Grote plays an important role also. He is, Orr says, "no patty-cake and at times looks as if he should be playing for Bo Schembechler, the football coach." Two broken noses, a sprained thumb and torn cartilage in his chest have not slowed him down a bit in his fourth season as a starter. He manages to survive on toughness ("I love to make my opponents feel bad").
Even with this collection of veteran talent, Orr worries that "we aren't where we should be. I'm still having to make changes at the other forward position, which is something the very best teams never have to do. But I do believe we can beat any team we play without special adjustments. Last season against Indiana we zoned some because we knew they were better than us. This year we played our own game and Indiana changed some things—a different lineup, a different offense to combat our press."
If Michigan does return to the final four, credit should also go to Assistant Coach Bill Frieder, a self-made basketball man whose 24-hour devotion to the game makes the head coach and everyone else around him seem lax by comparison. Orr has always had good assistants (Fred Snowden, now at Arizona; Jim Dutcher, now at Minnesota) and has always given them a great deal of responsibility and authority. Except for Orr's veto power and greater visibility, Frieder is in many ways the head coach—making out the schedule, coordinating the recruiting, running the basketball camp, formulating and implementing much of the strategy.
Frieder even points out, in case no one notices, that Orr began his string of three NCAA appearances when Frieder joined the staff. Indeed, Orr asked Frieder not to leave last year when he was considering taking a head coaching job. "John's biggest attribute," says Frieder, "is his ability to hire good assistants. Otherwise I don't think we would be as successful as we are."
So far the Michigan system has worked. It has been more than three years since somebody ran for student-body president on a Dump Orr platform. The team is winning. Crisler Arena is filled. And Orr can continue to be the nice guy he has always been without worrying about his job. Frieder will see to that. And if Frieder doesn't, there are always Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard.