It is commonly accepted that the University of Michigan is a football school with a good basketball program. This is measured based on the revenue, television ratings, alumni, Big Ten Titles, and Bowl Games Michigan has played in since Bo Schembechler became the head coach back in 1969.
You could argue that since 1964, Michigan has actually been a better basketball school. Basketball never produces the same revenue as football, and television ratings consistently lag behind football ratings. Still, the success of Michigan on the court has actually been a bit more impressive, depending on which measure you use.
People will say the football team is more successful, because since 1964 they have won or shared 22 Big Ten Championships, compared to the basketball team’s 9 Big Ten Championships (and 1 Conference Tournament win (1998) which was later vacated). Also, both teams have won 1 National Championship since 1964. Basketball in 1989, and football in 1997. But, the basketball team has played in the National Championship game 5 other times since 1964, and been in the Final Four one other time, in 1964. The football team finished number 2 in the country once (1985), and in the top four 6 other times (1964, 1971, 1976, 1980 and 1988). The point here being the basketball team has actually had more looks at winning a National Championship than the football team.
With all that being said, I will now present my picks for the Michigan basketball Mount Rushmore. I have read other picks on this, and I mostly agree with the others, with one notable change, which I will explain.
First, and I feel the person who has to be first on any such list is Cazzie Russell. He is probably the greatest player who has ever graduated from Michigan. The unfortunate thing about his career is that it came before basketball became extremely popular in the country. He played from 1963 to 1966, winning the National Player of the Year award after the 1965-66 season, while averaging 30 points per game. Michigan won three Big Ten Championships in these years. They were the national runner-up in 1965 to UCLA, made the Final Four in 1964, and the Elite Eight in 1966. He was a second-team All-American in 1964, and a first team All-American in 1965 and 1966. He followed that by being the number 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 1966. He is simply the greatest Wolverine to play basketball for the school.
The second choice is also a no-brainer. Glenn Rice was the most valuable player on a very talented 1989 Michigan team, which went on to win Michigan’s only basketball National Championship. During those 6 game tournament, Rice scored a record 184 points (30 points per game), which stands to this day. For the season, he averaged over 25 points per game, earned the Big Ten Player of the Year, was a second-team All-American, and got drafted 4th overall into the NBA. Rice also graduated with several of Michigan’s individual records, including most career points (2,442). He followed that with a long career in the NBA, where he was known as a sharp-shooter.
The number three person on the mountain is Trey Burke. Again, no arguments here from all of the “experts” I see out there. In his two years with Michigan, Burke led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title, and a berth in the 2013 National Championship game. I personally think the referees kept Michigan from winning that game, calling ticky-tack fouls on Burke, forcing coach John Beilein to bench Burke for much of the first-half. Near the end of the second half, Burke also had a great block on Peyton Siva which was called a foul. This swing in points was too much to overcome.
Ok, off my soap box, Trey Burke earned the National Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2013, averaging almost 19 points per game, and over 6 and a half assists. As a defender he had 62 steals and 20 blocks. He will always be remembered for his long, game-tying three pointer against Kansas in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament at the end of regulation. He scored all 23 of his points after half-time in that game, personally taking it over when it appeared Michigan was done with only minutes left in the game, and returning Michigan basketball to relevance after two decades of obscurity.
The last person who belongs on the Michigan Mt. Rushmore is also the most controversial. From a pure talent standpoint Chris Webber could arguably be the greatest Wolverine. He also seems to have left the most unfinished business, as well as questions surrounding his career.
Chris Webber was the considered by some to be number one player in the country coming out of high school. As a freshman power forward he average 15.5 points per game, and 10 rebounds. He also had 84 blocks and 54 steals. This Michigan team would go to the 1992 NCAA Tournament Finals after entering the tournament a number 6 seed.
For the 1992-93 season, Webber would lead Michigan in scoring (19.2 ppt), rebounding (10.1), and blocked shots (90), while also being second in steals (47). He would be a first-team All-American. Michigan would end the season ranked #3 in the country, with only three losses in conference (four overall), and yet would not win the Big Ten. Indiana, the #1 team in the country only had one loss in conference. Despite this, Michigan would get a number 1 seed in the tournament, and ended up losing a thriller in the finals to North Carolina, when Chris Webber called a timeout while Michigan did not have any.
I can see why Webber is not included in many people’s Mt. Rushmore of Michigan basketball. His involvement in the Ed Martin scandal, which cost the school several years of vacated wins, not to mention banners coming down from the rafters, is still a dark shadow on the program. Further, Webber has chosen to keep disassociated from the school despite his contact ban being lifted. Adding to all of that he had a borderline hall of fame career in the NBA, if you look only at his stats. His teams were never relevant, however, which hurt his overall legacy. Webber retired in 2008, and his legacy is still confounding to this day.
Despite that you cannot talk about Michigan basketball without talking about the Fab Five. Chris Webber, whether you like it or not, was the sun around which the other players orbited. Even decades after the Fab Five attended Michigan, they are still among the most discussed teams in NCAA history. The years 1991 to 1993 were truly the only years the basketball team eclipsed the football team in the popular lexicon. Leaving a player like Webber off the Mt. Rushmore feels criminal, even if he never fulfilled his promise, or acted as ethically as he should have. I simply cannot come up with a player who outshines him in the program’s history.
To close, this list is not meant to disrespect so many great players who have played basketball at Michigan. My main criteria in choosing this list included 1) winning. All of these players were on teams which made the NCAA Tournament Finals. All of these players were All-Americans; Glenn Rice being the only second team All-American, but making up for it with not only the Big Ten Player of the Year, but also the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament.
Also, each player is from a different era. Even though Webber and Rice played at Michigan only a couple of years apart, the two seasons between their careers changed everything. Michigan fell apart in 1991 after graduating all of the starters from the 1989 team, requiring Steve Fisher to be aggressive in his recruiting. What was one thing he could promise to a freshman? The chance to compete for playing time. Other major programs had upper classmen who were taking the critical minutes. By the middle of their freshman year, the entire Fab Five was starting. This was unprecedented in NCAA basketball at the time. Rob Pelinka was the only member of both teams. This is why the 1989 team and the 1991-92 team are of different eras.
Mixing up the eras I feel the major milestones of Michigan basketball are represented here. The obvious apologies have to go to the 1976 team, which was also the national runner-up. Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard both deserve mention, also winning a Big Ten Championship in 1977, and both earning second-team All-American honors, while entering the NCAA Tournament ranked #1 in the country. They made the Elite Eight before falling to Charlotte, 75-68. Either of these two would be worthy of mention, hence why they are here, but I do not feel that either outshines the people who made this list. Unfortunately there are only four spots to fill.
Roy Tarpley comes close as well. He earned All-American honors, was Big Ten POY, and won two Big Ten Championships. The 1984-85 team and the 1985-86 team both entered the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 5 in the country, and neither team got out of the second round.
Also, I don’t want to disrespect other members of the Fab Five, especially Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. Neither made this list, because Webber was the better player. Add Nick Stauskas to that too. Even though he won the Big Ten POY, and led Michigan to a Big Ten Championship and the Elite Eight in the Tournament, he is overshadowed by Trey Burke. Last, throw Gary Grant into that mix. His career overlapped with Tarpley early, and Rice late. He was an All-American, and played on good Michigan teams, but his teams never performed will in the NCAA Tournament, which keeps him on the outside here.
There are my picks, and my reasons. Who are yours, and why? Go Blue!