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.
"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, but 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."
They learned that lesson the hard way. Even though Frieder tried mightily to convince his team that it could lose to Villanova, the players never quite believed him.
"I don't think we're cocky," said Joubert, whose nickname is "The Judge." "I think we're just confident."
Rellford disagrees. "A good team has to be cocky," he said. "If you ain't cocky, you can't win."
Michigan looks cocky. Joubert with his curly Hollywood do; Grant with the chain around his neck that reads, "General #1," (a Christmas gift from his mother); Rellford with his high-stepping strut. Only Frieder, towel slung over his shoulder, voice hoarse, hair graying, seems to look worried.
"He knows how to tell us when we make mistakes," Joubert said. "He doesn't really yell at us unless we're not hustling. But when we aren't as good as we can be, he lets us know. We're an experienced team. We know how to take care of business."
The seniors have dealt with being blown out; they have won in postseason (the NIT) and lost when they should not have in postseason.
"When we were freshmen, Indiana just killed us in here," said Tarpley, who missed three weeks of preseason practice because of knee surgery and is just now rounding into shape. "Coach (Bob) Knight came in here and told us to keep working, that we would get better and better. We all remembered that."
Knight and Frieder were friends then. An on-court incident at Ann Arbor two years ago changed that, but Frieder's players took Knight's counsel to heart. They worked, they improved and now they are not only good, they are tough.
That never was more evident than Thursday night. With 17,253 screaming and with Indiana's Steve Alford firing his team back into the game, Michigan saw a 12-point lead slip to three. Five minutes were still left. If ever a team could be excused for blinking, this would be the time.
"Playing in here," Tarpley said later, "is like going into a cage."
But the Wolverines came out of the cage unscathed. Each time Alford cut the lead to three, the Wolverines scored. And they escaped. Frieder, sated by the victory, smiled as he glanced at the statistics.
"We did exactly what we had to do," he said. "We shot 55 percent (no Indiana opponent had previously shot 50), we outrebounded them and we didn't turn the ball over. So we sneaked away with a win."
He smiled. "But that's all it is, a win. We still have a long way to go."
Perhaps. But Frieder and Michigan have already come a long way. Far enough to know that, having survived their past, they don't really need to worry about the future.
"This summer, Gary and me played a lot against Isiah (Thomas) and Magic (Johnson), and we learned a lot from that," Joubert said. "They both won the NCAAs, and they told us we had another chance, that we should put last season behind us and go on.
"That's what we're doing. We just keep trying to get better. All we want is another chance."