CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Well, now, you have an answer, those of you who thought Michigan’s basketball team was awesome, dominating, that the loss to puny Alaska-Anchorage was a fluke, a mosquito distracting a giant, that when it came to a real game, against a nationally ranked opponent, especially in the Big Ten, you’d see the truth.
You want the truth?
“We’ve got a ways to go,” said coach Bill Frieder, after the sixth-ranked Wolverines lost, 96-84, to No. 2-ranked Illinois. “Right now, we’re just like Iowa and the rest, chasing after Illinois. And I’ll tell you this. God forbid Rumeal Robinson gets injured. We’d really be scrambling.”
Not that they weren’t scrambling Saturday. Scrambling after Illini guards who stripped them of the ball and exploded downcourt, scrambling after Illini forwards who busted through the middle for easy bankers, scrambling to the three-point line to try to slice their deficit as the clock ran down. What stung about this loss was not some glaring mistake or breakdown. What stung was the fact that Michigan didn’t really play all that badly. The Wolverines simply lost to a better team.
Emphasis on the word team.
“What do you think of their chances in the Big Ten?” someone asked Frieder of the Illini, who had five players in double figures Saturday — much to the delight of the screaming, orange-crazed Illini fans.
“Chances?” he screeched. “They could run away with it!”
Now, granted, this comes from a man who offered to bet $500 on Illinois — his infamous challenge to Illinois coach Lou Henson, who kept crying about Michigan’s height and strength advantage. Frieder loves to make the opponent look like Goliath, so his team can play like David. Still, the way Illinois played Saturday, you might want to make a wager yourself. The Illini didn’t have a starter over 6-feet-7, yet they held their own in rebounds, they went to the foul line more than twice as often as Michigan, they spun, twisted, leaped and whirled. And they neutralized U-M’s stars by stripping the ball 11 times.
“This team never pushes the panic button,” said Kendall Gill, the junior guard who did the most damage, collecting 26 points, four crucial steals, and forcing a turnover just before halftime that led to his three-pointer at the buzzer. “This team is like a family. Families stick together through thick and thin. We’re one big, happy family.”
OK, Kendall. Before we call in the rest of the Brady Bunch, let’s remember this is still basketball. And this is just one game, and it was played on the orange crush court, all cylinders clicking, and that when Illinois comes to Ann Arbor for the season-closer in March, it could be a different story.
For one day, however, the Illini did indeed play together better than Michigan, and that is a criticism that will always cut the flesh. Make no mistake: Individually, U-M is as talented as they come. You can’t beat a Glen Rice or a Rumeal Robinson or even a Sean Higgins for natural talent. But Rice can’t do it all. (Although he comes close he scored 30 Saturday.) And young Higgins, who was individually great in his first Big Ten game Thursday night, was individually poor Saturday (1-for-9 shooting, with several forced three- pointers).
And Robinson? An excellent player in the wrong position. “Right now, he’s our whole backcourt,” said Frieder. “He’s naturally a No. 2 guard and we have him playing the point, and we’re trying to turn forwards into guards to play the other spot. Right now, when he leaves the game, we’re dead.”
So where does this leave the Wolverines, who will now likely fall to the outer reaches of the top 10 in the national rankings?
It leaves them with a game against Ohio State Monday. That’s about it.
“I’m not going to get all upset over this loss,” said Frieder, who nonetheless sent his players onto the bus without a chance to meet the media.
“Ohio State at home is what’s real important. If you want to win the Big Ten, you have to win your games at home. . . .
“This (Illinois) team is a great team, maybe the best Big Ten team since the Indiana team in 1976. My kids played as well as they could. They outdid us in defense, rebounding and shooting.”
If all this sounds like over-complimenting, well, such is the nature of college coaching. Even with the win in his pocket and a 15-0 record, Henson was stroking the Michigan team, explaining how fortunate his players were to have beaten such a great powerhouse. And Frieder was putting Henson’s team in the Hall of Fame.
OK. This talk will go on and on until someone is wearing a championship ring on his finger. But this you can believe: Michigan is not yet ready for a national championship performance game after game. Too many inconsistencies, not enough team play, and a thinness at the guard position. Their only other loss — the upset by Alaska-Anchorage — could be attributed to sleepwalking, Christmas break, the moon being in the seventh house. But Saturday’s performance comes up short, no matter how long you look at it. And it marks the ninth straight time a Frieder-coached team has lost here.
“Who knows what it is?” he said, folding the final stat sheet. “The best thing for us is to get out of here as quick as we can.”
He turned and looked down the hall. “Is everybody on the bus? Are they all there? Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.”
And off he marched, headed, presumably, back to the drawing board.