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Wolverines Are Good, Cocky and Thinking About National Title

January 12, 1986|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Sitting in a hotel restaurant last week, Michigan Coach Bill Frieder did not look at all like a coach whose basketball team was about to face its toughest game of the season in a building in which it had won once in 14 games.

"I don't know what will happen tonight. Maybe we'll lose," Frieder said as his second bowl of minestrone arrived. "But it's just one game. Last year we lost to Indiana by 25 in the Big Ten opener and came back to win the league. Anyone who saw that game would have bet a lot of money that Indiana would challenge for the league championship and we would end up in the second division. It didn't turn out that way."

In fact, Michigan won the last 15 Big Ten games it played and ran away with the Big Ten title while Indiana fell apart and finished seventh in the league. The Wolverines entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation, only to lose to Villanova, 59-55, in the second round.

That was nine months ago. Now, Michigan, with all five starters back, is again ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Wolverines arrived here with a 12-0 record, and people were wondering whether their preseason schedule had been too easy. They left with a tough 74-69 victory over the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall and concessions all around that their 30 victories in 31 games over two seasons must mark them as a team that can win the national championship.

National championship?

"I don't even think about it right now," Frieder said. "A lot of coaches, when they're picked to do well, worry about failing, about not living up to expectations. We have a good team, we've worked hard. I think we'll do well. But if we don't do as well as people expect, I'm still going to be the coach at Michigan next year whether people like it or not. And the year after that.

"I've got a good job, we have a good program, I'm not going to worry about one game, one week or even one season. We'll just do the best we can."

Frieder's approach is in marked contrast to that of Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins. His team was ranked one spot ahead of Michigan in the preseason--No. 1--and Cremins has complained incessantly that too much is expected of his team. Frieder's attitude, one that the coach has passed on to his team, may best be summed up by his precocious sophomore guard, Gary Grant.

"We know we're winners," Grant said. "That isn't going to change no matter what we do this season. We'd like to add being champions to being winners."

Grant and his teammates are a collection of high school all-Americas methodically put together during Frieder's six years as Michigan coach. He took over in 1980 when his boss, Johnny Orr, who had been successful and popular, left for big money at Iowa State. Orr had recommended Frieder, then 38, as his successor.

In Frieder's second season, Michigan was 7-20, including a 1-12 start. Frieder, an inveterate recruiter whose eyes often look like hollow sockets, says he never worried. "That was partly because (Athletic Director) Don Canham came to me when we were 1-12 and told me I was his coach, period," Frieder said. "And it was partly because I thought we'd get it done."

Frieder's confidence is that of a man smart enough to understand what he is capable of accomplishing. Frieder has been asked to leave the blackjack table at several Las Vegas casinos because he is a master at counting cards, proof that he is bright and has an inordinate ability to concentrate.

"Card counting is a matter of concentration," Frieder said. "It's an awful lot like basketball. If you can concentrate all the time, whether in blackjack or basketball, you can do well."

During that miserable 7-20 winter, Frieder began getting the players he needed to do well. He signed Roy Tarpley, who began his senior year of high school as a skinny 6-7 center recruited hard only by Michigan, and grew three inches during that season. He signed Butch Wade and Richard Rellford, two midsized (6-6 and 6-8) players who looked as if they would fit football uniforms more easily than basketball uniforms. And he signed Robert Henderson, a slender 6-9 lefty.

The four began their Big Ten careers with a loss to Northwestern. But by the end of that season, they had finished 15-13 and Frieder had signed Antoine Joubert, a flashy 6-5 guard, to go with his front line. One year later, the Wolverines were 23-10 and won the National Invitation Tournament. Then, one year later, Tarpley, grown up to 6-11 and 230 pounds, Joubert and Grant, perhaps the best freshman in the country, led them to a 26-4 record.

"We're just a team that's full of talent," said Rellford, who starts at forward with Wade and helps do the dirty work that frees Tarpley (16 points per game), Joubert (16) and Grant (14) to score the points. "After last year, we're very motivated. Winning the Big Ten was great, but we were very young in the NCAA tournament. This year, we won't be. We learned a lesson then--anybody can lose. Just look at Georgetown."

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