ATLANTA -- This Michigan team is just as young as That Other Michigan team and we can stop the comparisons right there. On this team, heading into this Final Four, there isn't the same level of hysteria, there's no extra fabric in the shorts, no show of bald heads and black socks, no NBA draft lottery salivating in the shadows and no NCAA hammer about to drop, best we can tell anyway.
They aren't the Fab Five, but if they win two games at the Georgia Dome, these Michigan players will bask in fabulosity anyway. They will allow Michigan to come full circle and return to college basketball glory 20 years after the program went down in flames in the championship game and then became locked inside a long and frustrating timeout (sorry, C-Webb). With plenty of spirit and grit -- if not as much swag as the Fab Five -- these players are true Michigan Men, as Bo Schembechler would say .
This Team isn't That Team. They weren't all highly recruited from coast to coast. They weren't showcased in a bunch of high school All-America games. They're not larger than life or bigger than their coach. By all accounts, this Michigan team reflects well on the school and these players will end up overachieving their way to the top if we find them dancing on press tables come Monday night.
Did you see this coming? Be honest, now. After failing to distinguish themselves from the other national contenders in a solid but otherwise nothing-special regular season, the fourth-seeded Wolverines have gone thermal blast at the absolute right time. That's how championships are won -- by the hot team, not necessarily the best. They've had one close game in the tourney. That was clinched in the clutch on a big shot by their baby-faced assassin of a point guard, Trey Burke. The rest were convincing wins against quality competition. That doesn't mean Michigan will sucker-punch Syracuse in their Saturday semifinal, but at this point, who'll be surprised if the Georgia Dome turns into The Big House?
"It's terrific to see what this has done to the university, the fans and also the program," said coach John Beilein. "We're thrilled, but we're also ready to move on to see what we can do in Atlanta and really to see if we can continue this for years to come."
Plenty has happened since Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson fizzled against North Carolina in the 1993 title game (Bill Walton has criticized the ring-less Five) and almost none of it good. When Webber was linked to booster Ed Martin, and an investigation found that Webber (and others) accepted hundreds of thousands in payments, the school slapped itself on the wrist and scrubbed away any evidence of the Five. Two Final Four banners were pulled from Crisler Arena (now known as Crisler Center) and Michigan officially disassociated itself from any contact with Webber for 10 years, a ban that runs until May 8.
Along with the scattered NCAA penalties that came from the investigation, the program became tarnished. Perception became Michigan's biggest enemy. As expected, like hyenas on the hunt, rival schools raided Michigan's recruiting turf and made themselves at home. Tom Izzo and Michigan State owe part of their success to Michigan's problems. They took full advantage and became the Michigan school of choice for Detroit-area blue chippers.
"It was survival for us for about three or four years after I got here," said Beilein. "It was just about getting to the NCAA tournament because we hadn't been here in, like forever. And once you finally get over that, it becomes about winning in the tournament and trying to get the championship. Raising expectations. Making people feel disappointed if you don't win a championship. And that's a good situation to be in."
The fallout lasted almost a decade. Michigan basketball was woozy from the turn of events. After poor Steve Fisher was fired, Michigan went 0-for-2 in coaches. Brian Ellerbe captured the Big Ten title one year and then became overmatched and couldn't coach Michigan higher than seventh in the conference. Under Tommy Amaker, Michigan celebrated an NIT title. Big whoop. In six forgettable seasons Amaker never made the NCAA tourney, hurt in part from the penalties from the scandal but also because he couldn't recruit. This was rock bottom for Michigan and it could be argued the program actually took a step backward.
But that's all in the rear view now, thanks in part by a commitment to bring the facilities out of the prehistoric age and also the hiring of Beilein, an unexpected gem of a coach. When he was hired in 2007, he wasn't considered a savior, even though he had success with West Virginia in the competitive Big East and was respected in coaching circles. In the shabby condition the program was in, Michigan couldn't be choosy. Beilein had to deal with the scholarship reduction from the Martin scandal for one year, and then went to work restoring the gleam.
It wasn't easy. Izzo was snatching all the talent in the state and Chicago and even Ohio State was showing up in homes where Michigan normally recruited. But persistence and a bit of luck paid off. Tim Hardaway Jr. was one who fell through the cracks; he wasn't even recruited out of Miami by the Florida schools. Glenn Robinson Jr. was much the same; he was All-State second-team in high school, not even Mr. Basketball in his state. Their famous last names were bigger than they were.
But they came to Michigan and developed nicely and rapidly under Beilein, to the point where they're on NBA first-round radar. And Burke, a sophomore who was Beilein's biggest recruit, might be the hottest player in the country and perhaps played his way into the NBA lottery whenever he decides to make the jump.
Michigan starts three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. And yet they play with poise and confidence, as though they belonged in the Final Four, adopting the same attitude as five sophomores 20 years ago.
"A remarkable similarity," Beilein said.
Just look at the steady growth of the program. Two years ago in the tourney, Michigan nearly beat Duke in the final seconds. Last year, the Wolverines won a share of the Big Ten season title. This season, they temporarily held No. 1 in the AP poll, the first time that's happened since the Fab Five did it.
"All the credit," said Beilein, "goes to the hard work of the players and the staff. To me it's about continuing to grow the program so that we're in position to be in this position all the time."
If they overcome Syracuse and the toughest zone defense they'll ever see, the program will reach a curious destination. This Michigan Team will be exactly where That Team was 20 years ago, playing for a championship, minus the hype but with the same self-assurance.
"The Fab Five era was a great, great era," Beilein said.
Guess what? Two more wins and this era will be greater.