It was nearly 3 a.m. Saturday, 13 hours before Michigan's showdown with Indiana for the Big Ten championship at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena, and Wolverine center Roy Tarpley was just getting to bed. He had been too excited to sleep. Tarpley's mother, Selener, would be flying in from New York City, as she has for every Michigan home game for four seasons. In addition, several relatives were making the trip from Mobile, Ala., where Tarpley grew up. In his room in the hotel in which the Wolverines were sequestered, Tarpley was rehearsing the footwork he hoped would bedazzle the Hoosiers. As game time approached, he admitted, "I started getting the butterflies in my stomach. After all, the game was for all the marbles."
It took about two minutes for Tarpley to make it perfectly clear that he had all the right moves, and for the second straight year Michigan won all those marbles. Tarpley was brilliant in Michigan's 80-52 destruction of the Hoosiers in the final game of the regular season, which in the Big Ten—one of only four Division I conferences (the Pac-10, the Ivy League and the West Coast Athletic Conference are the others) without a postseason tournament—means everything. Michigan thus earned the second seed in the NCAA Midwest Regional. Before a record home crowd of 14,198, the 6'11" Tarpley scored a game-high 21 points from every possible angle, snatched 11 rebounds and had three blocks and three steals. When he left the game to a standing ovation with 2:25 left, he performed one last two-step on the sideline with his teammates. "It was my victory dance," Tarpley said. "I worked on that last night, too."
Michigan coach Bill Frieder had been frustrated by his team's late-season swoon, doubly so because while Michigan was losing to Minnesota, Illinois and twice to Michigan State, Indiana was being Indiana, which is to say the Hoosiers were climbing steadily, if not surprisingly, into contention for their eighth Big Ten title in coach Bob Knight's 15 years in Bloomington. But Frieder could sense the Wolverines' readiness early on Saturday. "I told them, 'I know you're going to win,' " he says. "I knew they were ready to play because they were all here early. Usually, they're just on time."
It was hardly a one-man show. While Tarpley pounded inside, junior guard Antoine (The Judge) Joubert scored 12 of his 16 points during an 11-minute, 28-12 barrage that buried the Hoosiers early. Joubert's backcourt mate, Gary Grant, concentrated on hounding Hoosier star Steve Alford, ultimately holding him to 15 points, well below his 22.7 average. A few minutes before intermission Michigan was up 36-16, and the contest was all over.
" 'Toine, he's the one," said Tarpley. "He really rises to the occasion on TV. We work the two-man game, just like Magic and Kareem. Gary and me work on it, too. The drinks are on me with those guys." Though Grant was quiet on offense (six points), he dished out five assists, made four steals and led the Wolverines' suffocating man-to-man defense. "When Gary would get lost," said Alford, "someone else was there to pick me up."
Michigan shot only 44.0% from the field, but shooting percentage hardly matters when you hold a 47-29 rebound advantage. "We hit the boards from the beginning," said forward Richard Rellford, who chipped in with 13 points and combined with Tarpley and Butch Wade for 13 offensive rebounds. Rellford and freshman Glen Rice collaborated on shackling Hoosier freshman sensation Ricky Calloway (four points), while Tarpley so frustrated 6'7" Daryl Thomas that Thomas played just 19 minutes and scored two points. Tarpley also got in a little extracurricular jawing with Thomas and 6'6" Andre Harris. "I told them they weren't going to score. I was trying to intimidate them," says Tarpley. "Maybe I ought to cut that stuff out."
Gratuitous woofing was one of the things that Frieder intended to eliminate when he placed his players off limits to the press after Michigan's second loss to Michigan State, a 74-59 embarrassment in Ann Arbor on Feb. 20. Certainly Frieder was miffed at Joubert for guaranteeing local columnists a win over State in the rematch. But Frieder's biggest worry was that his players would fold under the pressure of the widespread assumption that the Wolverines would coast to a repeat conference championship. "It's a long season," Frieder says. "It can wear on the kids." From its No. 2 preseason ranking, Michigan had won its first 16 games, including an early-season triumph over Georgia Tech, which was No. 1 at the time. Then the Wolverines struggled to six Big Ten wins in 10 games. Tarpley, whose sudden burst upon the national scene last season coincided with his team's, had been slowed by knee problems and by the relentless collapsing zones that had become standard for Michigan opponents. "Roy can get frustrated," says Rellford. "They put two or three guys on him, and it's hard to shoot over everyone."
Frieder knew that the Wolverines would regain their edge only if they regained their enthusiasm. "I told the kids, 'You have 20,000 more days to live your lives, so let's devote 20 of them to basketball,' " he says. He revved up the attack by turning the ballhandling chores to the speedy Grant, who is a fearsome sight on the open floor, thereby freeing Joubert. "We're running the ball now," says Joubert. "That's my kind of ball. This creates more options for us. Before, we were getting so basic." After struggling to beat Alabama-Birmingham at home on Feb. 22, Michigan scored one-sided victories over Wisconsin and Northwestern, building momentum for its climactic final week.
Meanwhile, Knight had fashioned yet another team in his own pure-but-fiery image. The Hoosiers are not lightning quick or very tall, but they are mobile and smart and can execute Knight's complicated motion offense. Indiana's losses in its first two Big Ten games, to Michigan and Michigan State, might have been a "sign of doom," in the words of Spartan coach Jud Heathcote, but not as long as Knight still had his fight. The Hoosiers won 13 of their last 15 games. Included in those wins was a 97-79 thrashing of State in East Lansing last Wednesday night that knocked the surprising Spartans out of the race.
Michigan had to beat Ohio State on Thursday, or Indiana would have clinched a tie right then, and the Wolverines' 99-82 victory over the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor sent a clear message to the Hoosiers. Tarpley scored 22 points, grabbed seven rebounds and outplayed OSU's Brad Sellers, the conference's leading rebounder. "I was pumped for that one," Tarpley said. "Got to get pumped for one more."
And so he did, as did the rest of the Wolverines. Knight was philosophical, lauding the turnabout that earned his Hoosiers the third seed in the East Regional and faintly praising the Wolverines. "I don't think they play hard all the time," he said. "But if they play the way they did against us all the time, they have a chance in the tournament."
If history repeats, Michigan has more than a chance: The last three Big Ten teams that won back-to-back conference titles went on to win the NCAA tournament. "Is that right?" said Tarpley. "Then I guess we'll be next." Tarpley's mother might want to make her reservations to Dallas now.