SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — It was too early for a basketball classic. The first snows hadn’t even fallen, much less melted. The days were growing shorter, football ruled the screen and the words “final four” would be interpreted as how many shopping weeks left until Christmas. Yet here was an arena full of people and a court full of network TV cameras waiting for greatness from two college basketball teams, who just happened to have been pre-season ranked No. 1 and 2 by most everybody in the know, you know.
Georgia Tech and Michigan.
Now, anyone who has ever lost a voice screaming for an alma mater will tell you that the time for college basketball hysteria is somewhere around midterm exams, spring semester. Not Thanksgiving break. But how often do you get a 1-2 showdown? Could you pass it up? Would you?
So we all converged on the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in this New England arena — a fine place for a Michigan-Georgia battle, don’t you think? — figuring that when you put two teams on the court, you’ll get a basketball game of some kind, right? Only we got the kind you get when nobody lives up to his billing and the team that plays less terribly wins.
By the way, it was Michigan.
The Wolverines won, or rather endured, rallying behind Antoine Joubert’s 14 points in the second half (the only offensive performance even worth mentioning) to clinch it, 49-44.
Thank goodness for Joubert. Without him, U-M was in danger of coming in second to Bo Schembechler’s offense. Characters all in place
Call it tightness. Call it too early a wake-up call. Michigan was playing its third game of the season and Georgia Tech its second. It takes that long to choose the right socks.
“A big game this early is tough,” said Tech coach Bobby Cremins. And it showed, especially in the first half.
True, the characters were all in place. Thanks to pre-game hype, we already had a bonanza of nicknames: “Spider” (Tech center John Salley) “General” (U-M guard Gary Grant) “Judge” (Joubert). But when the curtain came up, the players were still dressing for the show. They stammered through the script in a miserable performance. Passes flew off hands, off legs, balls were ripped from grasps only to be bounced out of bounds, shots thudded off rims, shots missed the rims entirely, and more bodies went splat than balls went swish.
Remember, these are supposedly two of the best-scoring teams in the country. But more than midway into the first half, U-M had more fouls than points. Michigan shot 18 percent in the first half, 31 percent for the game. Georgia Tech was even worse, finishing at 29.6 percent.
Naturally there are two ways of looking at this. Horrible offense, or great defense. Winners, like U-M coach Bill Frieder, embrace one:
“This was a great basketball game. I know it didn’t look that way to people watching on TV. But they don’t understand defense.”
While losers, like Cremins, opt for the other:
“That was one of the worst performances of any team I’ve ever coached. Terrible, terrible.”
Oh, well. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, the former being where many of this game’s shots were aimed, the latter being where many of the players wound up.
Nobody played to his capabilities.
The big men, Salley and U-M’s 7-foot Roy Tarpley, had 21 points and 15 rebounds. Combined.
And Tech’s Mark Price, considerd by many the country’s top guard, seemed intent on convincing everybody otherwise. He shot two-for-13 and completed many of his passes to maize-and-blue uniforms.
“That wasn’t the real Mark Price you saw out there today,” Cremins said.
“I guarantee you.” Everyone was tight
Now, undoubtedly, U-M and Georgia Tech will be great basketball teams this year. Even Saturday, you could glimpse the talent like gold lodged in wet stone. They just weren’t there yet. It takes about one part savvy and five parts sweat before the pressure of a “Who’s No. 1?” showdown doesn’t affect you.
“We were tight,” Freider said.
“We were tight,” Cremins said.
No problem. The pound of flesh Michigan won Saturday — the Wolverines were already No. 1 in the United Press International poll and probably will stay No. 2 behind North Carolina in the Associated Press version — is not something they can feast on all season. There will be tougher games, and quite probably losses. And plenty of wins for Georgia Tech. What did it all mean? Not too much. Remember, college basketball rankings change their numbers as often as Burt Reynolds.
For now, give credit to Michigan for showing character enough to scratch and claw to a win. It wasn’t easy.
To everything there is a season. These are two great teams. But their premature “showdown” was like being awakened to eat a gourmet supper at 5 a.m.
It would have tasted a lot better later on.