Three years that built the future of Michigan basketball.
Coach: Dave Strack
Records: 23-5 (11-3 in the Big Ten) in 1964
24-4 (13-1 in the Big Ten) in 1965
18-8 (11-3 in the Big Ten) in 1966
Big Ten Regular Season Champions: 1964, ‘65, ‘66
Highest National Ranking: #1 (1965)
Key Players Stats (best season):
- G/F Cazzie Russell, 30.8 PPG, 8.3 REB (1966)
- F/C Bill Buntin, 20.1 PPG, 11.5 REB (1965)
- F/C Oliver Darden, 13.8 PPG, 9.6 REB (1966)
A number of outstanding moments line the rafters of the University of Michigan’s basketball history: the improbable appearance in the ‘76 title, the unexpected jaunt to the ‘89 championship, the Fab Five, and the recent dash to runner-up status with National POY Trey Burke.
Perhaps none of that is possible if Cazzie Russell doesn’t decide to play three illustrious seasons in Ann Arbor.
In the early sixties, Michigan was the doormat of the league. In the time since their last conference title in ‘48, they’d mustered four winning records and failed to break double digits nine out of fifteen tries.
Playing in the old Fielding H. Yost Field House, an unattractive basketball local, didn’t help. Years later, Russell recalled his recruiting visit. Evidently, Coach Strack lost––or claimed to have lost––the keys to Yost while showing Cazzie around.
“If I had gone to Yost on my visit, I would’ve said, ‘Oh, my goodness, is this where I’m going to play?’ They had real bats flying around that place, with baseball bats cracking with that team working out in there, too. And the track team. . .was practicing while we practiced. I thought the key story was legit. But they took me to the football stadium instead, and you could see the whole city from up there.”
It’s impossible to pick just one season. All three years were so iconic, successful, and unprecedented for the Wolverines. At a time when the only way to make the NCAA Tournament was to win your conference, Michigan won three straight years. In the fifty years since, they’ve only repeated five times.
A respectable team, lead by junior center Bill Buntin, became exceptional with the additions of Russell and Oliver Darden. They pummeled Big Ten competition but couldn’t get past Duke in the Final Four. Russell finished with 31 points against the Devils but their balanced attack was too much. The Wolverines beat Kansas State to finish in third.
This was the pinnacle. With Russell, Buntin, and Darden dominating the glass, they out-rebounded opponents by 13 a game while scoring 90 points a contest. The only games they lost that year were by 1 point each, on the road at Nebraska and St. John’s, before dropping their final game at Ohio State, a meaningless contest since they’d locked up the league by then.
Along the way, they took revenge at Duke, bested #1 Wichita State, and produced such over-flowing crowds at Yost that the university broke ground on an entirely new stadium. Officially named Crisler Center, it’s known colloquially as The House That Cazzie Built.
In the Final Four, they beat Bill Bradley’s Princeton Tigers before running into Gail Goodrich and the UCLA Bruins. Entrenchment in basketball lore would come later but John Wooden’s squad had lost just two games in two years and Goodrich’s 42 points overwhelmed the Wolverines.
Russell’s senior season should have been the continuation. He averaged almost 31 points on his way to National POY stature. But the loss of Buntin to graduation really hurt. Junior John Clawson stepped up to fill some of the scoring void. But they regressed on the glass, dropped 5 boards a game. While they broke the school record for scoring, the defense got markedly worse.
The 1966 NCAA Tournament lives in the pantheon of college basketball history. The final game, as you probably know, pitted the virulent racism of Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky Wildcast against Don Haskins’ all-black Texas Western starting five. But the story almost turned out differently. Western Kentucky, a mere 150 miles from Lexington, had integrated in ‘63 with Clem Haskins and Dwight Smith and they believed they had the stuff to take down UK.
And in the regional semifinal, with a shot to face Kentucky at stake, they led Cazzie’s Wolverines by one point with time winding down. On a jump ball, WKU was called for a controversial foul as it appeared Russell didn’t jump but merely leaned into a Hilltopper to draw contact. He succeeded and buried two free throws, a finish that still smarts those who follow Western Kentucky basketball.
Michigan couldn’t get past Kentucky, and the historical significance of the team diminished nationally while the final game grew to mythic proportions.
Dave Strack transitioned out of coaching and into administration, serving as the athletic director at Arizona for ten years, where he hired the first black head coach in a major conference. Bill Buntin and Oliver Darden had barely middling professional careers.
Cazzie Russell was drafted #1 overall by the New York Knicks. He served as a role player on the 1970 NBA champions, alongside Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, and, famously, Willis Reed.