Baggy shorts, bald heads and black socks – the final remaining images of the last Michigan men’s basketball team to make it to the NCAA National Championship game.
Hard to believe it was 20 years ago when a group of Wolverine sophomores, “the Fab Five,” reached their second consecutive NCAA championship game, only to lose to North Carolina 77–71. The title game will be forever etched in basketball history for Chris Webber’s infamous “timeout,” a play resulting in a technical foul since Michigan had no timeouts remaining, leaving the Tar Heels of North Carolina to ice the game on the free throw line.
The “Fab Five,” a nickname given to the 1991 Michigan recruiting class, consisted of shooting guard Jimmy King, small forwards Ray Jackson and Jalen Rose and power forwards Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, many of whom considered the greatest class ever recruited.
As freshmen, the Fab Five changed the game of college basketball forever with their on and off the court antics, demeanor, style of play and boldness as underclassmen. The five reached the big dance as freshmen in 1992 losing to Duke 71–51, then again the next year to UNC.
The Fab Five never won a championship, but another young Michigan team has risen from the depths of disappointment hoping to reclaim what once should have been theirs two decades ago on Monday night in the Georgia Dome.
“The biggest challenge with Michigan: They were a top-10 team all year, and their freshman center was just learning,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told ESPN before their 61-56 loss to the Wolverines in the National Semifinal Saturday night. “Now he’s there and at an unbelievable level. So that’s a big difference with their team.”
“They have, arguably, the best point guard in the country in Trey Burke, and then for their center (Mitch McGary) to be playing on this level makes them very, very difficult because they’ve gone from a top-10 team to a top-four team in the last two or three weeks — and a very difficult offensive team to play against,” Boeheim added.
Current Michigan sophomore guard Trey Burke was only 16 months old the last time Michigan was in the NCAA final. Burke, who attended middle school in Atlanta, was named a first-team AP All-American, Michigan’s first since Chris Webber in 1993.
“It’s surreal, it’s a dream come true,” said Burke. “We understand we have unfinished business. This was one of our goals, to get to Atlanta and compete for a national championship. Now that we’re here, we just have to take full advantage of it, just be focused.”
Michigan was the youngest team entering the NCAA Tournament of 68 teams, with a rotation of six freshmen, one sophomore, but arguably had the nation’s best backcourt in Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., with a trio of three freshmen, Nik Stauskas, McGary and Glenn Robinson III rounding the starting lineup.
Michigan Head Coach John Beilein, who may be one of the greatest coaches in the nation without a national title, is cherishing the moment.
“We’re so proud. I am so proud. But the university I know is so proud of these young men,” said Beilein. “I’m really proud of them. It’s certainly a great moment for them and our university. I know everybody at Ann Arbor, the Michigan brand all over the world is very happy.”
The young Wolverines now face basketball powerhouse and the number one tournament seed over all, the Louisville Cardinals, (34-5) who fought of an upset bid from this year’s Cinderella team, the Wichita State Shockers, 72-68.
“Playing for the title is what we’ve been working for all season long, this team made a lot of sacrifices to get to this point,” said Hardaway Jr., son of former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway. “We’re just going to try to do a great job of containing Louisville and make sure we play Michigan basketball.”
Monday night’s championship final will be an up-tempo game with Louisville pressing where Syracuse’s 2-3 full court defense failed against Michigan. The Wolverines will look to continue the success of the pick and roll offense, but the game will be a battle between guards Burke and Peyton Siva of Louisville.
“Last year when we played Kentucky, we played ’em tough; it was a tied game at one point,” said Siva. “We couldn’t get over that hump. This year we’ve made our run and we stuck with it. For me it’s been a great run, long journey, a lot of ups and downs. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“Every day I treat it like it was my last game,” Siva added. “Monday, it definitely is. It would be great to go out on a win. I know my team and I will be ready tomorrow. We just got to go out there and play our hardest.”
Michigan has tried several times over the past twenty years to return to the ship that the Fab Five once sailed on. Former head coaches Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker could not do it, so now all eyes are on Beilein.
This young group of Wolverines may actually be more talented than the Fab Five. The 1993 Wolverines were a regional No. 1 seed entering the tournament, beating a No.16 seed, a No. 9 seed, a No. 12 seed, a No. 7 seed and then No. 1 seeded Kentucky in the Final Four en-route to the championship.
Beilein’s team entered this year’s tournament seeded fourth. They defeated a No. 13 seed, a No. 5, a No. 1, a No. 3, and most recently four seed Syracuse on Saturday night. The Fab Five are already in the record books, but Monday, Beilein and his team will look forward towards a feat that the legendary group before him could never do, win it all.