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April 8, 2013

A look back: U-M in the title game

The Wolverines are playing for the NCAA Tournament National Championship for the first time in 20 years, but before that drought, they had been a fairly regular fixture on the sport's largest stage.

Michigan played for at least one title in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s.

From Cazzie Russell to Rickey Green to the Fab Five, the Wolverines have had some special players and teams make historic runs in the NCAA Tournament.

Here's a look back at all of the Wolverines' appearances in the title game.

1965

In the first 25 years of the NCAA Tournament, from 1939-63, the Wolverines managed to secure an invitation to the field just once, in 1948. Then Cazzie Russell stepped on the court, and everything changed.

When Russell was a sophomore, in 1964, he and All-American Bill Buntin led the Wolverines to a Big Ten Championship and the school's second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan lost to Duke, 91-80, in the Final Four.

But the next year, the Wolverines were back with a vengeance. After winning the Big Ten outright, they won their first three games in the NCAA Tournament by an average of 15.0 points per game, setting up a National Championship Game against the budding UCLA dynasty.

The Bruins won, 91-80, claiming their second consecutive national championship. They would eventually go on to win nine titles in a 10-year span under legendary coach John Wooden.

UCLA jumped out to an early lead, led by a game-high 42 points from star Gail Goodrich. Three Michigan starters - Buntin, Oliver Darden and Larry Tregoning - fouled out of the game, which is still a record in an NCAA Tournament game.

According to a Eugene Register-Guard story from the game, UCLA fans in attendance began chanting, "AP, UPI, Sports Illustrated… bah, humbug," because those three wire services had tapped Michigan as the No. 1 team in the nation heading into the tournament.

"I felt our best chance was to fight them on the boards," Wooden said after the game. "I felt our quickness and speed could cause them to tire. I thought our press would eventually get to them."

1976

After Russell's final season (1966), the Wolverines took a bit of a dip, making the tournament just twice in the next 10 seasons (1974, 1975). But led by point guard Rickey Green, the Wolverines made a run to the title game in 1976.

There were some questions about Michigan leading into the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines had faced four ranked teams during the regular season - and lost every time. But, like the 2013 team, they got hot at the right time, defeating Wichita State (74-73), Notre Dame (80-76), Missouri (95-88) and Rutgers (86-70) to reach the National Championship Game.

Like the program's first appearance in the title game, Michigan ran into a buzzsaw when it hit the championship game.

Indiana won the game, 86-68, capping an incredible two-year run. The Hoosiers finished the year with a perfect 32-0 record (the last undefeated champion in college basketball) and went 62-1 over the 1975 and '76 seasons (losing to Kentucky in the 1975 regional finals).

The Wolverines jumped out to a 35-23 lead at half, but Wayman Britt and Phill Hubbard each picked up a fourth foul early in the second half, helping the Hoosiers' offense. Indiana scored 63 second-half points to pull away.

"We played a very good first half," Michigan coach Johnny Orr said after the game. "But we got into foul trouble, and when we needed the big shots, we couldn't make them."

It was the first time in NCAA Tournament history that two teams from the same conference played for the championship.

1989

There is one enormous banner hanging from the south end of Crisler Arena - and it immediately grabs your eyes as you enter the bowl from the concourse. It says, "NATIONAL CHAMPIONS - 1989."

Led by Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson and Loy Vaught, the Wolverines finished third in the Big Ten and received a No. 3 seed heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Then, the unimaginable happened: coach Bill Frieder announced that he would accept the Arizona State job at the end of the season. Then-athletic director Bo Schembechler famously announced that "a Michigan Man would coach Michigan" and dismissed Frieder from the team, naming Steve Fisher interim coach for the postseason.

Fueled by a rousing motivation speech from Schembechler, the Wolverines, who had lost their final game of the regular season 89-73 to Illinois, stormed into the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines won their first four games in the tournament by an average of 14.0 points per game, setting up a rematch with Illinois in the Final Four. Despite losing both regular-season games to Illinois by a combined 28 points, the Wolverines escaped the Illini, 83-81, to reach the National Championship Game, where they played Seton Hall.

In one of the most iconic moments in NCAA Tournament history, Robinson hit two free throws - one to tie, one to go ahead - in the waning seconds of the game, sealing Michigan's first - and to this point, only, NCAA Championship.

1992

Fab Five. Those two words have taken on a life of their own.

In 1991, five freshmen - Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson - took the college basketball world by storm, and led the Wolverines to a 25-9 record and the National Championship Game.

In the tournament, the Wolverines beat Temple (73-66), East Tennessee St (102-90), Oklahoma State (75-72) and Ohio State (75-71 in overtime) to reach the Final Four. After a 76-72 win over Cincinnati in the national semifinal, Michigan was back in the title game.

The freshmen of Michigan were outpaced by a veteran-laden Duke team, 71-51.

The Blue Devils captured their second consecutive title, the first time since UCLA dynasty of the 1960s and early 1970s that a team achieved that feat.

"We just played with more emotion in the second half," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "In the first half, we played good defense, too. But they scored off our turnovers and they scored off defensive rebounds. It's just that our offense helped us out in the second half."

Rose hit a shot with just under seven minutes to go in the game, cutting the Duke lead to 48-45 - and then the Blue Devils took over.

Duke scored on the next 12 possessions to take control of the game.

1993

For the second year in a row, the Fab Five led the Wolverines to the National Championship Game. And for the second year in a row, Michigan came up just short.

Early a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan beat Coastal Carolina (84-53), UCLA (86-84), George Washington (72-64), Temple (77-72) and Kentucky (81-78) to get to the title game. Interestingly, the Wolverines beat the Wildcats despite going 0-of-4 from three-point range.

The title game against North Carolina is remembered for one thing: Webber's infamous timeout. Webber advanced up the court, drove into the corner and called a timeout, despite the fact that Michigan had none remaining. The technical foul was the nail in the coffin, and the Tarheels went on to win, 77-71.

2013

After a 20-year hiatus, the Wolverines are back in the National Championship Game.

Michigan has faced a barrage of defensive-minded teams, cracking VCU's pressure defense, Kansas' physical defense, Florida's efficient defense and Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense to reach the title game.

Will the Wolverines win one more game? Only time will tell.


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