Remembering Michigan’s Mid-Major NCAA Tournament Cinderella Runs

Written By Nolan Bianchi on March 15, 2022 - Last Updated on March 16, 2022
Glass slipper

March Madness is officially here.

To celebrate, we’re putting an emphasis on the madness by taking a look at the Division I mid-major Michigan programs to earn a win in the NCAA men’s tournament since its inception (with two honorable mentions that don’t exactly fit that bill).

Take a trip down memory lane and remember the hallowed moments in the game’s biggest stage that live on without the satisfaction of a national title.

1975 — Central Michigan (22-6, 10-4 MAC)

Coach: Dick Parfitt

NBA players: Dan Roundfield, Jim McElroy, Ben Poquette

The first run from a Michigan school also included a Sweet 16 appearance, though there is just one asterisk that comes with it: This was back when the tournament was a field of 32.

Central Michigan escaped with a 77-75 win over Georgetown in the opening round before falling to Kentucky by 17 points.

The Chippewas were led by a couple of future NBA players: Roundfield, whose 12-year pro career included a stop in Detroit and three All-Star honors; McElroy, who also played a half season in Detroit; and Poquette, who spent the first two seasons of a 10-year NBA career with the Pistons.

This team does come with a unique distinction, though: It was the only one to actually win its last game of the tournament. The Chippewas topped Oregon State, 88-87, in the Regional Third Place Game, back when that was a thing.

1976 — Western Michigan (25-3, 15-1 MAC)

Coach: Eldon Miller

NBA players: Paul Griffin

Final AP ranking: 10

It certainly wasn’t a surprise when Western Michigan started its 1976 tournament by defeating Virginia Tech by 10 points. The Broncos went 25-3, only losing once in the MAC, and were No. 10 in the season’s final rendition of the Associated Press Top 25. 

Unfortunately for Western, it earned a second-round date with a Marquette team that’d fallen outside of the top 5 just twice that entire season, rostered five future NBA players and would go on to win the National Championship a year later.

The Broncos just had one future NBA player on their team in Griffin, who finished his career as the program’s all-time leading rebounder and has the honorable distinction in this story of not having played for the Pistons at any point during his career. 

1977 — Detroit Mercy (25-4, Independent)

Dick Vitale with Villanova students
Dick Vitale (Associated Press)

Coach: Dick Vitale

NBA players: John Long, Terry Tyler, Terry Duerod

Final AP ranking: 12

We’re talking Titans, baby!

One of the more memorable mid-major teams in Michigan’s basketball history due to the prestige of its head coach, college basketball icon Dick Vitale, Detroit Mercy ran through its regular-season schedule during the 1976-77 season.

It picked up regular-season wins over No. 8 Arizona and No. 9 Marquette before landing in the NCAA Tournament with just four losses on its record. Detroit Mercy opened the tournament with a 93-76 win against Middle Tennessee State.

The Titans then ran into a foe that hit a little too close to home, though. The No. 1-ranked Michigan Wolverines ended the Titans’ run after just two games in a hard-fought 86-81 loss.

Remarkably, all three of their future NBA players would go on to start their NBA careers with the Pistons.

1991 — Eastern Michigan (26-7, 13-3 MAC)

Coach: Ben Braun

NBA players: Carl Thomas, Charles Thomas

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 12

After three consecutive years of a small school from Michigan winning games in the tournament, it’d be another 14 years before we’d see it happen again. In that time, the tournament added traditional seeding into the equation and expanded the tournament to 64 teams ahead of the 1985 season. And really, that helped make Eastern Michigan’s run in 1991 one of the truest ‘Cinderella runs’ amongst these teams.

Whereas Western (1976) and Mercy (1977) entered the NCAA Tournament as a top-15 team in the country, Eastern in 1991 got in as a 12-seed. It pulled off the notorious 12-seed over a 5-seed upset, and then squeaked out a win over Penn State to get a shot at 1-seed North Carolina, led by future three-time NBA champion Rick Fox and current UNC head coach Hubert Davis. And the Eagles got absolutely smacked, 93-67.

Neither of the Thomas twins, Charles and Carl, amounted to much in their NBA careers, but they do remain teammates, both serving as assistant coaches on the staff of Duquesne. 

1996 — Eastern Michigan (25-6, 14-4 MAC)

Coach: Ben Braun

NBA players: Earl Boykins, Derrick Dial

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 9

This Eastern Michigan team’s claim to fame is producing the most famous NBA player on this list in 5-foot-5 Earl Boykins. He played 13 years in the league and his No. 11 Denver Nuggets jersey has to be one of the most popular-selling jerseys of all-time for a guy that only averaged 8.9 points during his career as a point guard (people who grew up in the 2000’s know what I’m talking about). 

Boykins scored a game-high 23 points with seven rebounds, five assists and four steals as the 9-seed Eagles destroyed 8-seed Duke in the opening round, 75-60, before falling to UConn in the next round. 

The beauty of this run is the beauty of the NCAA Tournament at large. Sure, the Eagles didn’t get very far. Sure, they didn’t even really pull off that much of an ‘upset.’ But as time passes, those disclaimers matter less and less. Eliminating Duke and Mike Krzyzewski lives on forever. 

1998 — Western Michigan (21-8, 14-4)

Coach: Bob Donewald

NBA players: None

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 11

Western Michigan put the Madness in March when it upset 6-seed Clemson during the opening round of the 1998 tournament, holding off a second-half comeback from the Tigers that fell just short in a 75-72 victory. 

The scrappy Broncos are the only team on this list that didn’t send anyone to the NBA, and that’s likely what did them in when they fell to a 3-seed Stanford team that would go on to reach the Final Four.

They did have a little local basketball royalty on the roster, though, in current Michigan basketball assistant Saddi Washington.

1998 — Detroit Mercy (25-6, 12-2 Horizon League)

Coach: Perry Watson

NBA players: Jermaine Jackson, Desmond Ferguson

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 10

Detroit Mercy began a little bit of a hot streak in 1998 under Perry Watson.

The Titans — then in the Horizon League after making their first tournament as an independent — got past St. John’s in the opening round after two buzzer-beater attempts fell short, winning their first NCAA Tournament game in over two decades. 

Derrick Hayes led the way for Mercy with 27 points, with future NBA journeyman Jackson finishing tied for the second-most points for Detroit Mercy with a mere 9.

This roster also included future Titans head coach Bacari Alexander, as well as some guy named Michael Jordan, who we can only assume made the team based on name recognition. He averaged 0 points, 0.6 rebounds and 0.3 assists that season.

Though Detroit Mercy got smushed by 2-seed Purdue in the following round, the stage was set for another run that next season.

1999 — Detroit Mercy (25-6, 12-2 Horizon League)

Coach: Perry Watson

NBA players: Jermaine Jackson, Desmond Ferguson

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 12

From the record, to the coach, to the players who would eventually achieve their NBA dreams, everything remained the same for Detroit Mercy the following season.

That is, except for its tournament seeding — which didn’t seem to bother the Titans, as they pulled off another upset in the form of a 56-53 win over 5-seed UCLA behind a defense that allowed the third-least amount of points in the NCAA that season.

They couldn’t keep the floodgates shut for long, though, as the Ohio State Buckeyes scored 75 in what’d be a 31-point loss for the Titans in the following round. Because we know you’re wondering: Michael Jordan did have an uptick in offensive production, averaging 1.0 point, 0.3 rebounds and 0.1 assists.

2003 — Central Michigan (25-7, 14-4 MAC)

Coach: Jay Smith

NBA players: Chris Kaman

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 11

After quite the hiatus of their own, Central Michigan won its first NCAA Tournament game in nearly 30 years when the Chippewas pulled off an 11-over-6 upset win over Creighton in the 2003 tournament, thanks to senior Mike Manciel going bonkers with 29 points — more than double his career-average.

Kaman, who’d go on to be drafted sixth overall at season’s end, got them there, though. He averaged 22.4 points, 12 rebounds and 3.2 blocks, but his 25 points in the Chippewas’ second-round matchup with Duke wasn’t enough to avoid the logical conclusion: A 26-point loss at the hands of J.J. Redick and Dahntay Jones

2005 — Oakland (13-19, 7-9 Mid-Continent)

Coach: Greg Kampe

NBA players: Rawle Marshall

Final AP ranking: NR

Tournament seed: 16

It was quite the year for Oakland University. Not only was it the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since making the jump to Division I in 1997, but it is also the only team on this list to finish the regular season with a losing record. 

Thanks to a surprising run in the Mid-Continent Conference tournament, the Golden Grizzlies earned the right to beat Alabama A&M in the 16-seed play-in game behind 29 points from Marshall, the first Oakland alumni to reach the NBA. It feels worth noting that Marshall also participated in the 2005 NCAA Dunk Contest, which absolutely needs to be a thing again.

And in the end, Oakland’s Round-of-64 loss came with the noble consequence of falling to the eventual champion North Carolina, 96-68.

Honorable mention

1992 — Michigan (25-9, 11-7 Big Ten)

Coach: Steve Fisher

NBA players: Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Eric Riley

Final AP ranking: 15

Tournament seed: 6

In the early 1990s, Michigan made an inconceivable run to the national title behind the work of a faction that many now know today as the … *checks notes* … Fab Five

OK, so maybe this wasn’t a Cinderella in the traditional sense, and yeah the Wolverines finished their regular season ranked No. 15 in the country with the greatest freshman class that college basketball had seen to that point..

But the fact remains they did take some time to figure things out, and that’s a big reason why they ended up in the 1992 Tournament as a 6-seed. Back then, the sport was dominated by maturity and upperclassmen, so it was actually a surprise that Michigan knocked off 2-seed Oklahoma State, 1-seed Ohio State and 4-seed Cincinnati before earning the right to take a (very misguided) swing at Duke in the title game, where the Wolverines lost by 20.

2015 — Michigan State (27-12, 12-6 Big Ten)

Coach: Tom Izzo

NBA players: Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello

Final AP ranking: 23

Tournament seed: 7

If there’s any Michigan State group that proves the “January, February, Izzo” bit holds weight, this one is probably it. 

While Valentine was the most notable Spartan name on this roster, Travis Trice was a menace, leading Michigan State in scoring all season and in consecutive tournament wins over 2-seed Virginia (23 points), 3-seed Oklahoma (24) and 4-seed Louisville (17), which Michigan State knocked off to punch their ticket to the Final Four.

Unfortunately for the Spartans, that’s where the road ended. Michigan State was run over by Duke by the same margin as the Michigan team that lost to Duke in 1992, a score of 81-61. 

If there’s anything to be gleaned from this story, it’s that the Blue Devils are not to be trifled with.

Unless you’re Eastern Michigan. Then have at it.

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Nolan Bianchi

Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit-based freelance journalist covering the Lions, Red Wings and everything in between. He is the former host of the Locked On Red Wings hockey podcast, still collects sports cards, is a published playwright and is a harsh critic of sandwiches.

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