Legendary Match-Ups

How Michigan State and Michigan followed similar paths to national titles 

Though separated by a decade and a fierce intrastate rivalry, Michigan State University’s 1979 title team and the University of Michigan’s 1989 championship squad have plenty in common beyond their Big Ten affiliation and respective homes in The Mitten State. 

The Chucker, 19nine’s resident historian, reflects on similarities between the ’79 Spartans and the ’89 Wolverines and their individual marches to college basketball’s ultimate prize. 

Both entered the season with high expectations and national championship aspirations. 

Michigan State began the 1978-79 season ranked #7 in the country, returning six of its top seven scorers from a 25-5 team that captured the Big Ten regular season title in 1978. 

Michigan’s 1988-89 squad, meanwhile, earned a pre-season #3 ranking. Though Gary Grant had moved onto the NBA, the Wolverines brought back four starters from a 26-8 team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 1988. 

Both were fueled by homegrown talent. 

Michigan State was led by a trio of Michigan prep stars. Before matriculating to MSU, high- scoring forward Greg Kesler starred at Henry Ford High in Detroit while sophomores Magic Johnson (Everett) and Jay Vincent (Eastern) both made a name for themselves in Lansing. 

For the Wolverines, Glen Rice was a high school All-American at Flint Northwestern while starting forward Loy Vaught (East Kentwood) and starting center Terry Mills (Romulus) also starred at Michigan high schools before donning the maize and blue. 

Both overcame mid-season stumbles. 

Across 16 days in January, the Spartans lost four of six games, including an 18-point defeat at Northwestern on Jan. 27 that dropped MSU to 11-5 on the season. Thereafter, the Spartans captured momentum, winning 10 of their final 11 games to earn a share of the Big Ten regular season crown with Purdue and Iowa. 

After an 11-0 start to its 1988-1989 campaign, Michigan fell to Division II Alaska-Anchorage at the Utah Classic and then split 10 games in the heart of the Big Ten slate. Michigan, however, would close the season winning five of its last six games to finish third in the Big Ten behind Indiana and Illinois. 

Both went into March Madness on a losing note – and facing concerns. 

In its regular season finale, MSU lost 83-81 at Wisconsin on a 55-foot buzzer beater by Wes Matthews. It was the Spartans’ fifth regular loss by a bucket. Outside the 18-point drubbing to a Northwestern squad that finished 6-21, in fact, Michigan State’s five other regular season losses came by a combined 8 points. That spotty record compelled many to question the Spartans’ ability to win the close games that often define March Madness. 

In its NCAA Tournament preview, the Chicago Tribune noted that head coach Jud Heathcote’s Spartans had a “tendency to fritter away leads.” 

In Michigan’s regular season finale, Illinois’ Flyin’ Illini smashed the Wolverines by 16 on senior night at Crisler Arena. Soon after, coach Bill Frieder, who had won 191 games over nine seasons at Michigan, announced he was taking the head job at Arizona State. While Frieder intended to stay through the end of the season, Michigan athletic director (and legendary football coach) Bo Schembechler told Frieder to head west immediately and tabbed assistant Steve Fisher to lead the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament. 

“A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan,” Schembechler said of the abrupt coaching change. 

Both won their school’s first national title in hoops. 

Behind Magic, MSU rolled to the national title, beating every opponent by double digits. The Spartans downed Lamar by 31, LSU by 16, Notre Dame by 12, and Penn by 34 before dropping Larry Bird and undefeated Indiana State by 11 in one of the most anticipated title games of all time. 

The Spartans added a second national title in 2000 under Heathcote disciple Tom Izzo. In contrast, Michigan squeaked out five of their six tournament victories. The Wolverines topped Xavier 92-87 in the opening round before surviving upset-minded South Alabama 91-82 and holding off North Carolina 92-87. After trouncing Virginia in the Elite Eight, Michigan topped Big Ten rival Illinois by two in the national semifinals. In the title game, Michigan needed overtime and two late free throws from Rumeal Robinson to pull out the 80-79 victory over Seton Hall. 

Though the Wolverines have made four championship-game appearances since that magical night in Seattle, including back-to-back title-game runs in 1992 and 1993 with the Fab Five, the program is still chasing its second national title.