SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The one question that worried everybody, that made Bill Frieder pace the court and made the Michigan alumni hold their breath and made the basketball media cluck their tongues, was whether or not these guys from Boise State could play basketball.

Now, that shouldn’t be a mystery in something as orange and round as the NCAA tournament. But that’s what the first round is all about. Boise State? Quick. Tell us all you know about the place. Thank you.

Not only had Michigan never played the mighty Broncos, they hadn’t even played any of this year’s Broncos opponents. All they had was some film. Besides, most of the us couldn’t find Boise if you gave us a road map, a Chevy, and a full tank of gas from Pocatello.

That’s OK. In Boise, the motto must be “We’ll find you.” And where they found Michigan Thursday night was surprisingly within reach, only three points up with 15 seconds left and the crowd screaming for an upset. Michigan? The 10th-ranked team in the country? Just three points up on Boise State? Yep. What you saw Thursday night were the Wolverines at their best and their worst.

In that order.

“It was sort of sloppy,” admitted center Loy Vaught (13 points) after the Wolverines escaped, 63-58, to advance to Saturday’s second round against Florida, “but we’ll take it.”

Yes, but only because Boise State couldn’t. The Broncos missed a final three-point attempt that would have tied the game. And Michigan walked off to the same whispers that seem to haunt them in every NCAA tournament. You won this time, but. . . .

“They’re gonna write you struggled again,” someone said to Frieder when it was over.

“I know,” he said, “I don’t care.”‘

He cares. Deep down, Frieder knows that with lapses like the final eight minutes Thursday night, the Wolverines may as well keep their bags packed. True, the Broncos were supposed to be able to play defense. But U-M had sliced through it in the first half, had built a solid 16-point lead and had set a record for fewest points allowed in a U-M first half this season (20).

And then, the second half.

Unravel time.

The Wolverines made bad passes. Worse. Their star guard, Gary Grant, made bad passes. And their defense softened. And they missed free throws. Oh, my. In the final two and a half minutes they missed four of five one-and-ones.

“We choked on those,” explained Frieder.

Well. That explains it.

“We stopped listening to the things coach was telling us,” said Terry Mills, who had 12 points in the first half and none in the second. “If we had kept boxing out, and made the easy passes instead of the hard ones, and not made the turnovers, we’d have still have been up by 15 points.”

True. Then again, if the Boise bus broke down, they might never have had to play.

For a team that left a lot of viewers shaking their heads, Michigan seemed relatively upbeat after the win. Perhaps it was because Grant and Glen Rice had only nine and eight points, respectively, and U-M still emerged with a victory.

“To tell the truth, we were surprised to be up 16 points the first half on Boise State,” said Mills. “We felt they were better than that. We expected them to play us tough and they did in the second half.”

A word here about the Broncos. Close or not, Michigan dashed their dreams, killed only their second NCAA berth in the school’s history. In an attempt to learn more about the school, I had spoken before the game with the Bronco himself, the team mascot, alias Rick Kennedy, a junior.

“You from Boise?” I asked him.

“Yep.

“Live there your whole life?”

“Yep.”

“Gonna stay there after you graduate?”

“Nope.”

So much for Boise State.

All right. back to the Wolverines. No doubt, there are some people this morning saying, “Ah, I knew they’d win” and no doubt many of them yesterday were saying “I bet Michigan loses to those nobodies.”

And come Saturday, that same duplicity will exist. No shock if they win. No shock if they lose. It is the shadow of doubt that has tailed this team for several years, and while it may not be fair, it will not go away until the Wolverines go far. Right now, that is a question mark. Florida’s players were in the tunnel watching the end of Michigan’s game Thursday night. And what U-M may have showed the Gators in victory may only be how easily they can be defeated.

Not exactly a confidence builder.

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