Let's see. There's Butch and the Judge. Also Rock and the General. Then there's Tarp who, sure enough, rolls over everybody. Another guy was actually christened Garde King. And, of course, Richard. Richard? Yeah, well, Richard goes 6'6", 230, and doesn't need anything so superficial as an appellation of shrieking virility to fit into what is obviously another one of Michigan's pulling, pushing, unmistakably puissant offensive lines. Ah, but there's the rub. Or in this case the rub-out. These Wolverines aren't football players at all, and that isn't Bo Schembechler down there ducking the reality of the forward pass and losing another bowl game, but a wispy little fellow with a duck walk and a bowl haircut. Call him Freeds—everybody does—and then get out of the way. As their names imply, coach Bill Frieder's Michigan basketball players would just as soon trample upon as speak to anyone who gets in the way during this season of resolution, redemption and an already clinched Big Ten championship.
"Teams get physical with us...we change their world," says forward Richard Rellford, who in fact was a tight end in high school and may be one in the pros someday. In their own world, Rellford and his swashbuckling mates have somehow without fanfare won 23 games (against three defeats) and have turned into the best team in the land west of the Washington-New York hypeline.
Last week, while Georgetown and St. John's engaged in another megamedia confrontation, Michigan swaggered in the wings with mirror blowouts of Wisconsin (88-68) and Northwestern (87-66), after which the 'Rines took a second glance to notice that not only had they won their 13th and 14th games in a row—a school record—and locked up the Big Ten title, but they also were the first team to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
That was something new. Since 1977, no fewer than 23 Big Ten squads have made the NCAAs, but not Michigan. Three years ago plain old "M"—for that is how the state's headline writers refer to one of the nation's finer institutions of learning above newspaper stories that occasionally have ripped Frieder to shreds—lost 13 of its first 14 games. Two years ago the team was 6-12 in the league and finished ninth. Then last March, after winning 18 games, Freeds and friends were snubbed by the NCAA.
Right away, Michigan won the NIT. In the spring M visited Europe and beat the West German national team. Then this season Frieder recruited a breathtaking 6'3" guard out of Canton, Ohio named Gary Grant to go with 6'5" sophomore Antoine Joubert in the backcourt. The General (as in Ulysses S.) met the Judge (he wants to go to law school), and Michigan roared out of the box with an 8-1 non-conference record.
Then Indiana came to Ann Arbor for the first league game in January and won in an 87-62 rout as Uwe Blab (31 points) kareemed all over the home team's star center, Roy Tarpley. Alas, who were these creeps in Wolverines' clothing? Any loon tetched enough to think Michigan could recover from that disaster to wrap up the Big Ten championship eight weeks later would probably expect a grown man to throw a chair across a basketball floor. And yet several unanticipated events scattered throughout the conference managed to transform this season into one of the more bizarre in Big Ten history.
Illinois, the overwhelming preseason favorite, scored a total of 34 points in one game, while former all-league players Bruce Douglas (.384 from the field) and Efrem Winters (10.0 points per game, down from 14.7 last year) couldn't hit the broad side of a farm in others. On Feb. 7 center George Montgomery limped off for the season with a fractured foot. The Illini wound up losing six of their next nine league road games.
Iowa, which was locked in a virtual first-place tie with Michigan until the conference got wise to the Hawkeyes' single-minded reliance on center Greg Stokes, lost four games in a row. "With the exception of Northwestern and Wisconsin, any of the Big Ten teams can beat anybody in the country on a given night," said Iowa coach George Raveling. When his team un-Raveled, it was beaten by Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Indiana, which, many forget, began the season ranked among the top five teams nationally, faltered because of lack of continuity (17 separate starting lineups) and quickness—although coach Bob Knight did set what is believed to be a Big Ten indoor record in the whirl, hurl and churl event when he unloaded that poor red chair, which was as defenseless as his team has sometimes been. All chairs were safe Sunday after Knight was banned by conference commissioner Wayne Duke from coaching in Indiana's game with Iowa—a 70-50 blowout by the Hawkeyes. Second-place Ohio State momentarily took a breather from conference play on Feb. 16 only to be defeated by Northeastern, but then came back and beat Purdue.
Wherever there was a breach in league consistency, Michigan seemed to wade right into it. After losing two of their first three conference games the Wolverines took off, winning every big one, and there were several. They won at Purdue 81-65, building confidence. They won at home in triple overtime over Iowa 69-67, even though they were outshot by the Hawkeyes .554 to .407. They smothered Kansas 96-77 on national TV, when Grant, the defensive wizard of robs, burst upon the scene with 20 points on nine-of-nine long-range shooting in the first half. They won a rematch at Iowa 56-52 as Tarpley outplayed Stokes in the game that gave Michigan a solid enough league lead so that it never had to look back. Then the Wolverines completed their critical road series by beating Minnesota 66-64 on a layup by forward Butch Wade and Michigan State 75-73 when Joubert, benched for missing practice, came on to score 18 points. "The best broken-play team in the country," Raveling says of Michigan. "When their offense gets busted up, they just go one-on-one."
Improved defense (Grant at the whip), newfound maturity, team chemistry—all the clichés fit—make Michigan, a team with just one senior of import, Leslie (Rock) Rockymore, a dangerous threat in the NCAAs. "It's about unity," says Rellford, "and being in the same 'hood [translation: neighborhood]. Good times happen when it's a family thing."
The departure of 6'11" Tim McCormick, the MVP in last year's NIT, and guard Eric Turner, both of whom left school with a year of eligibility remaining, might have damaged a lesser squad. But the truth is, the Wolverines run much better without the sore-kneed McCormick, and Turner was a nonworker who had ego problems sharing the backcourt with the much-ballyhooed Joubert. "I'd be coming on the break and he'd go away from me," the Judge says of Turner. "I've never treated Gary [Grant] the way Eric treated me. We needed teamship. Gary was just the player to jell us. He listens. He's a great kid."
Last season Tarpley—elusive and mobile, the proud possessor of a certain McAdoovian presence in the pivot—came out of everywhere to be the team's most valuable player. Having grown up in New York, moved to Mobile, Ala. and finished high school in Detroit, "Tarp really dropped out of the sky," says Frieder.
"I came here as a ghost," says Tarpley. This time around, the 6'11 "junior is the Big Ten's No. 2 scorer (19.2 points per game) and No. 1 rebounder (9.8 per game) and is certain to be named the conference's MVP
Nevertheless, it is the extreme contrast in Michigan's backcourt that is the most fascinating aspect of the team. The backups/outside shooters are Rockymore and Garde King Thompson, who would make a fine starting pair on many a campus. But, oh, that first string! Kansas's Danny Manning and Georgia's Cedric Henderson notwithstanding, Grant has been the most influential freshman of the season. Equipped with his ever-present boxer's mouthpiece along with marvelous athletic gifts and admirable selflessness. Grant may already be the best two-way guard in college. Following his spectacular half against Kansas, he took only one more shot because, he says, "I wanted to spread the wealth." Says Tarpley, "He has so much heart. We see G.G. out on top pressing like crazy, and we naturally dig in on defense."
So cobralike are Grant's instincts for the flickaway steal, for the pass through traffic, for all the loose-ball garbage, to be fair the General should be required to wear bells on his toes to enable the opposition to keep track of his whereabouts.
Conversely, Joubert, with his elegant Creole looks and smooth, sassy style suggesting none other than a stripped-down Prince on roller skates, would look proper only in tassels. Joubert traces his heritage to French-Cajun settlers around tiny Palmetto, La. But he grew up a prep school scoring legend in Motown—HERE COME DE JUDGE reads a sign on his Mustang—before joining the varsity at Ann Arbor. " 'Toine didn't get a shot off his first week of practice," says Tarpley. The Wolverines wanted to show Joubert his place. But the Judge proved that he was industrious and a team man besides. Though he is foot-slow, wide-bottomed and can't jump a lick, Joubert is "the best in transition I've coached," says Frieder. And he has become sensitive enough toward enemy catcalls—"Hey, Prince, sing for your Grammys"—to have had his curly mane radically sheared.
Though the Judge lacks motivation against the weak sisters, copping a plea with five-for-18 shooting in Michigan's two victories last week, he has been steady in the clutch. Joubert and Grant have combined for nearly 28 points per game and a total of 265 assists. "I can tear up guys with penetration," Joubert claims. "Dunk? I never saw Oscar Robertson dunk."
The explosive, colorful nature of this Michigan team is belied by the man who put it together. Frieder, a brilliant numbers man and card-counter who has been barred from several Las Vegas casinos, exudes all the charisma of your local mortician. A recruitaholic who eats on the run, the 43-year-old Freeds has lived for Michigan basketball ever since he was a student at Ann Arbor (class of '64) sniffing around the locker room, carrying a boxful of statistics and listening to four radios simultaneously in order to hear all the Big Ten games.
In 1973, Frieder, then coach at Flint (Mich.) Northern High, hounded his Michigan predecessor, Johnny Orr, until Orr gave him a job. As Orr's assistant, Frieder became petrified when he read of a prospect being the equal of Bo Derek because he didn't know where this Derek had played his high school ball. Now Frieder thrives on the toughest assignment of all—melding a bunch of 10s into playing like a 1.
"Freeds is one coach who doesn't take the glory," says Rellford. "He dresses down. He doesn't wait till the last five seconds to come out on the floor like Knight and those others. He knows the players are the game."
And it is some game Michigan is playing. "We're getting like Georgetown," says Joubert. "Intimidating people. Once you get a reputation, you can beat teams on sight. Now we're Michigan, and it's a five-point advantage right there. We've got the big-school name."
And a teamship of impressive little names as well.