An exhilarating comeback led by sophomore Trey Burke and freshman Mitch McGary has Michigan in the 2013 Elite Eight, the school’s first such tournament run in 20 years. The last time the Wolverines made a Final Four, it was on the strength of five legendary sophomores who had entered the program together as the Fab Five.
This year’s Wolverines are even younger than the 1992-93 squad that lost in the national title game while starting second-year stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose. McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III give Michigan three freshman starters in this tournament, along with Burke and junior Tim Hardaway Jr.
Scandal eventually tarnished the legacy left by Webber and his mates. Nevertheless, the Fab Five is still the gold standard, both for Michigan basketball and for any freshman-led lineup in college hoops (with a possible exception for Lexington, Kentucky).
Burke, the hero of Friday night’s thriller thanks to a 30-foot tying jumper at the end of regulation, has been the engine of this year’s brilliant performance. He’s never looked more like a soon-to-be Wooden Award-winner than he did in carrying his team to a come-from-behind Sweet 16 victory.
It’s perhaps fitting that these young Wolverines are built around the one thing the Fab Five never had: a true point guard, and a great one at that.
McGary, meanwhile, will never be mistaken for the unstoppable Webber, but he’s still done an awfully good imitation since being inserted in the starting lineup for the NCAA tournament. In three Wolverine wins, McGary is now averaging 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
The Wolverines wouldn’t have even gotten to this point if it weren’t for the great seasons turned in by yearlong starters Robinson and Stauskas. Their lethal perimeter shooting proved a perfect complement for Burke’s drive-and-dish skills. The first-year duo has combined to drain 94 three-pointers and score 22.4 points per game this season.
The Fab Five, of course, played a near-mirror image of John Beilein’s four-guard offense. Everything ran through low-post warriors Webber and Howard, with Rose (a shooting guard masquerading as a floor leader) the only headliner in the backcourt.
Webber and company also won with defense in a way this year’s squad has rarely managed. Webber was one of the best shot-blockers ever to wear the Maize and Blue, and while Hardaway Jr. is a gritty defender, this year’s Wolverines have no such individual icon.
However, one area where the Fab Five can certainly see themselves in this year’s squad is the return of the swagger they brought to Ann Arbor. Even when a Big Ten slump left Michigan all but forgotten in the national title discussion, Burke and Hardaway never lost their confidence.
It’s their leadership that has the Wolverines knocking on the Final Four door for the first time since the Fab Four (minus Webber) fell to Arkansas in 1994. The next big step for this team is to figure out how to dodge the title-game disasters that plagued their famous predecessors.
History is on Michigan's side here, as no team in this year's field approaches the invincibility of the 1991-92 Duke squad that eviscerated the Fab Five when the latter were freshmen. A more fitting comparison would be the infamous 1993 title game, when Webber infamously called a time-out he didn't have, allowing a better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts North Carolina team to hold on for the win in the final seconds.
Webber's gaffe was a one-in-a-million shot, so it's hard to guarantee something similarly fluky won't befall Michigan again. However, Michigan's late-game problems this season have been more prosaic—a missed Jordan Morgan layup against Indiana notable among them—and, significantly, they haven't tended to be mental mistakes.
Burke has already shown his talent for coming through in crunch time, and McGary (who somehow outplayed Jeff Withey in the Kansas win) hasn't backed down from a challenge, either. Michigan can be beaten by shutting down its scorers, but hoping the Wolverines will buckle in the clutch and lose a big game is not looking like a smart plan.
And that, ultimately, is the true connection between the Fab Five of legend and the Wolverines of the 2013 tournament: These are not just young teams, not just teams with amazing individual talent, but teams that win when it counts. Webber and company proved it could be done two decades ago, and Burke and his mates are hoping to write the one chapter the famous freshmen never could: a national title for Michigan.
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