SEATTLE — Bill Frieder lay on the couch of his hotel suite, his eyes red, his head propped up on a pillow. On the table was a bottle of penicillin tablets, a glass of orange juice, and a half-used tab of Sucrets.
“You know what I saw on TV last night?” he croaked, fighting the flu.
“Villanova upsets Kentucky. The CBS guys say: ‘Hey, let’s congratulate Kentucky on an excellent season. They have nothing to be ashamed of.’ “
He shook his head and laughed.
“I’m still taking flak for losing to Villanova in 1985 when they went on to win the national championship!”
Ah, well. Can’t win for losing. This was a few hours before Michigan’s game against North Carolina Friday night, a close affair in which U-M would be outplayed in the final minutes, outmuscled, outlucked, and finally defeated
— not by much, but defeated, 78-69 — to end its season in third round of the NCAA tournament. Frieder would plop into a chair in the locker room afterward, hair frazzled, eyes blurry, and accept the hushed words of well-wishers:
“Nice going . . . good try . . . you did your best.”
He could have told you what happens next.
“One game and you’re either a genius or a lousy coach,” he predicted back in the hotel room. “That’s the way it is in this tournament. People form opinions and that’s that. I don’t agree with it. But I don’t get upset anymore. It’s just so ridiculous.”
Can’t win for losing.
Let’s be honest here. The problem with running a top-notch program is that people expect a top-notch finish. They remember your last game, and inevitably in the NCAA tournament — unless you win the national championship — that last game is a defeat. Had Michigan won Friday night, fans would be tingling now with excitement, marveling at this U-M team, and how the Final Four was so close, oh boy!
Instead, people are talking about how North Carolina — the first “really tough” team U-M faced in this tournament — outcooled the Wolverines, beat them down the stretch, and if it wasn’t going to be North Carolina it would have been Arizona, and if not the Wildcats, somebody else. People don’t really believe you can win it all until you do.
“You know, I talked to this team about winning the national championship right from the beginning,” Frieder admitted, despite having denied any such aspirations throughout the year. Was he realistic? How good was Michigan? How
good were Grant, Mills, Robinson, Rice, Vaught, Hughes — this beefy collection of shaved heads and unbridled athleticism?
This good: Good enough to win 26 games. Good enough to overcome the loss of Sean Higgins (academic ineligibility) in mid-stride. Good enough to beat Indiana by 20 points, Iowa by 17, Illinois by 12 — and last week, Florida by 23.
And not good enough to beat Syracuse, or Purdue, or Arizona, or, finally, North Carolina.
In other words, a very successful Big Ten team that was unlikely to upset any superpowers. Frieder did an excellent job bringing all that young talent together so fast. And true, they were in that game Friday night, scratching and clawing in a maddeningly slow affair laden with time-outs, foul shots and substitutions. Until the final minute, they were alive — despite the sinking of their star player, Gary Grant, who had the worst game at the worst time, fouling out with only seven points.
And yet they did not pull it out. The Wolverines missed a few boxing-out assignments, they got a couple of bad bounces, and it was over. What can we deduce from that? They weren’t as good as North Carolina? They weren’t as lucky as North Carolina? They wouldn’t have as much success as North Carolina in the next round?
The answer is: You can’t deduce anything. Except that the Tar Heels won, and the Wolverines lost. A moment here for Grant. He is a marvelous basketball player, deserving of his All-America honors, but he skidded in the post- season and sadly, that will hurt his reputation. In two of the three tournament games (North Carolina
and Boise State) the senior guard was subpar. “Every player has a night like I had now and then,” Grant said in the locker room after Friday’s defeat, in which he shot just 3-for-10 from the floor. “This was my night for it. I could feel it from the start. I never got into my game.”
Too bad. Michigan fans know his game. Frieder knows his game. Unfortunately, most of the country gets its only look at the teams during the post-season tournament: What they will remember about U-M is a team leader who was not there when his team needed him most.
Unfair? Sure, it’s unfair. But such is the nature of the college basketball post-season. Sixty-four teams. Quick glances. Quick judgments. Which is why it should be celebrated, enjoyed, but not taken too seriously. The NCAA tournament, after all, is usually won by a team that peaks at the right time, gets a decent draw, and tears into the national spotlight. There are often teams eliminated in the first round that could defeat the ultimate champions two out of three games.
So why focus on the bowed heads that left the floor Friday night? One game is not a season. Like the CBS guys said, congratulations. Here, better, was Michigan, 1987-88: Grant dishing off the ball, bouncing, flicking, whipping passes, becoming U-M’s all-time assist leader; Glen Rice, bombs away, scoring 39 points in the inspirational victory over Florida last weekend; Rumeal Robinson and Terry Mills, forced to sit out last season, maturing as players and as people all season long, with Robinson hitting a personal best Friday night, 29 points, suggesting that the backcourt torch passed from Grant will be in very good hands; and Frieder, finally, passing his haunted second round of the tournament, hugging Grant, with whom he shared 100 victories in four years. “We did it,” they said to each other. That’s a nice moment in college basketball. It really is.
You have your choice. You can focus on a season’s worth of high notes, 26 wins, or on the final chorus, in which North Carolina proved too strong. Either way, the NCAA tournament rolls on. It is an unforgiving way to end a season, either glory or elimination, live or die. No one has time for sympathy.
“You going home?” a man wearing an Arizona sweatsuit asked me in the elevator as I was leaving the hotel. Arizona had won Friday night and will play in the West Regional final this afternoon.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m going home.”
“Too bad about them. I can see why you wouldn’t want to stay around for Sunday’s game.”
I shook my head. The elevator continued its descent. The man paused, then raised an eyebrow as he leaned toward me.
“Wanna sell me your seat?” he said.