Michigan's Fab Five play to constant whine of critics Only NCAA title will silence them


SEATTLE -- The question about Michigan's Wolverines: Are they matched against George Washington University, or the college basketball world?

The Colonials, with their 7-foot-1, NBA star-to-be Yinka Dare, would seem to be task enough tonight in the semifinal of the NCAA West Regional in the Kingdome.

But for this particular group of Wolverines, it is never enough just to win a game. They must also justify their act to an audience pickled with cocked eyebrows.

A fair amount of college hoops followers want to see the West's No. 1 seed (28-4), and the nation's third-ranked team, fail. Failure for this splendidly talented group is anything less than the

national championship they missed by a game a year ago.

"If we don't win the national championship, you bet our season will be a failure," Chris Webber, Michigan's own budding pro center in the bud, said recently. "What else is there to play for but championships?"

Many teams are thrilled simply to make the NCAA's 64-team field. Some, such as George Washington, have created an instant national identity by making the round of 16.

But Michigan's "Fab Five" sophomore class of starters -- Webber, 6-9 forward Juwan Howard, 6-6 forward Ray Jackson, 6-8 guard Jalen Rose and 6-5 guard Jimmy King -- not only are expected to go all the way, they must do it with a load of critics on their backs, and maybe keep several plates spinning on sticks, too.

The Wolverines' extraordinary accomplishment of last year, reaching the NCAA Finals with an all-freshman lineup, has evolved from cuteness to disdain, mostly because of the scowling, macho swagger that has become a part of their unprecedented success.

You know the tables have turned when Sunday's full house at McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona was rocking for Michigan's subregional opponent, UCLA -- a team that usually generates in Tucson fans as much empathy as airport Hare Krishnas.

"I've heard a lot of things," said Webber of his team's critics. The day before the UCLA encounter, he detailed some of the charges lodged against his club:

Michigan is too busy high-fiving and bumping chests. Doesn't play to its ability. Too lackadaisical. Webber doesn't seem to care. Can't score in the half-court. From TV analyst Bill Walton: "Michigan has the most overrated group of underachievers I've seen."

"But," said Webber, "I really don't even listen to that stuff."

The remark drew gales of laughter from reporters, because Webber had just explained that he and roommate Rose had written down and copied every slight for display on the walls of their room.

"The criticism hurt me more last year than this year," he said. "If you listen too much, you're on an emotional roller coaster."

Not all agree Michigan has been taking a public pummeling.

"As high-profile as we are, any person making a statement draws headlines," said Michigan coach Steve Fisher, who is about as low-profile a coach as Division I-A allows. "But I think a majority of people across the country have respect for us. By and large, I think we've been treated fairly by the media."

Some of the resentment (jealousy?) of Michigan comes from rival coaches, who perceive Fisher as lucky, a soft touch who just rolls the ball out and is reluctant to curb the displays of exuberance as would a Bobby Knight or a John Thompson.

Webber is quick to respond.

"The coach doesn't have to police us on or off the court," he said. "We police each other. He's been a schoolteacher most of his life. He comes across (in the media) as being soft or that he just lets kids play, but that's hardly the case.

"In practice he gets right up in your face and tell you what's wrong. He's a perfectionist. If you don't run something right, he'll run it back for you on film 20 times."

Michigan's offensive versatility and its defensive prowess in a tough schedule (opponents shot just 41 percent this season) cannot be overlooked, no matter the debate about style. And should any one of the Fab Five fade, UCLA Coach Jim Harrick made an often-missed point.

"Their second unit," he said, "might be able to win a conference championship in another league."

Regarding Michigan's image, only two things seem unarguable: Its black shoes and socks are the worst-looking footwear in the post-Imelda era, and the players in person are almost nothing like the team persona.

"Just get to know us," Webber said. Those who have report a well-mannered, thoughtful group that belies the showboating.

Maybe the Wolverines are on their best behavior, since the sports world again is watching. Maybe they've grown up a bit.

It could also be a matter of unfinished business, particularly since Webber and Rose have reason to consider making moves to the NBA after this season.

"I feel more sense of urgency because we did not win the Big Ten title," Webber said. "When you come out and don't accomplish one of your goals, you want to do something to put that (disappointment) on the back burner, to say, 'At least we did this.' "

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