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Only title will allow Michigan to repair its Fab Flop final image


As freshmen two years ago, the Michigan Wolverines shocked the world. But when the college basketball season ended that night at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, all the record books showed was a 20-point loss to Duke in the NCAA final.

As sophomores last season, they turned on the churl. But when the season ended that night against North Carolina at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, all anyone wanted to talk about was why Chris Webber called time out.

They are now juniors. Webber is gone. The Fab Five, the most chronicled class of recruits in history, has become the Fab Four. And when the season ends in 12 days at the Charlotte Coliseum, Michigan wants to have more than just a reputation.

The Wolverines do not want to be remembered, as coach Steve Fisher put it, "as the Buffalo Bills of college basketball." They do not want to be called, as junior center Juwan Howard said with a cringe and a smile, "the bad boys." They want their place in history, but not as the only team to lose in three straight NCAA championship games.

They want the trophy.

"We've had that feeling from the get-go," Fisher said yesterday, during a national telephone news conference from Ann Arbor. "When you're talented, and we've certainly had our share of talent, you say, 'This is going to be our year.' But I don't thinkthere's any urgency that it's now or never. It can't be now or never; you always have a chance next year."

But without Webber, now a multimillionaire rookie for the Golden State Warriors, it will be decidedly more difficult. Not only isn't Michigan (23-7) the favorite to survive this weekend's Midwest Regional in Dallas -- top-seeded Arkansas is -- but the third-seeded Wolverines might not beat 10th-seeded Maryland (18-11) on Friday night at Reunion Arena.

And with talk that Howard and fellow Fab-ster Jalen Rose could turn pro this year, waiting until next year doesn't seem so appealing.

"A lot of people don't think we can win [the championship]," Rose said last week in Wichita, Kan., where the Wolverines got a huge scare from 14th-seeded Pepperdine before winning, 78-74, overtime and then needed some clutch free-throw shooting to squeeze by sixth-seeded Texas, 84-79. "But it's harder to play against your own expectations than anybody else's."

In other words, Michigan still expects to do what its detractors say it can't and what the Wolverines couldn't quite accomplish the past two years: make enough big plays, and smart plays, to keep going and keep standing until the very end of this single-elimination tournament. Despite Fisher's 12-0 tournament record in games decided by five points or fewer -- four coming in the pre-Fab Five, championship year of 1989 -- something always has managed to get in the way.

Two years ago, it was their mouths. Howard is now as eloquent on a podium as he is efficient in the low post. Back then, he had yet to learn diplomacy and when he uttered those infamous words the day before the championship game -- "I pity Duke" -- it set the tone for the Blue Devils' 71-51 victory.

Last year, it was Webber's glaring mistake. After carrying the Wolverines on his back and to the brink of victory over the Tar Heels, with a 23-point, 11-rebound performance, Webber took away any chance the Wolverines had of winning by calling a timeout when none remained. North Carolina wound up winning, 77-71.

"This isn't about shocking the world, this isn't about being the bad boys, this is about taking care of business," Howard said.

But the other stuff still seems to get in the way. The Wolverines came to practice last Wednesday at the Kansas Coliseum and were treated like rock stars. By the time they left Saturday night, they were treated like bad-guy wrestlers. Even the school's band was booed as its members made their way through the stands during the Maryland-Massachusetts game.

It took two incidents during the Pepperdine game, and one afterward, to turn a polite Midwestern crowd into a hostile mob. The first took place when Howard, 6 feet 9, fouled Waves guard Damin Lopez, then shot the 5-9 guard an intimidating stare. Later on, when Lopez chased down a loose ball headed for the Michigan bench, reserve forward Makhtar Ndiaye blocked his path.

And, finally, after the Wolverines had escaped with a narrow win, Ndiaye waved his arms and shouted in the direction of Pepperdine's rooting section. Fisher defended his players -- claiming his own ignorance for the first two, and Ndiaye's exuberance for the other. Lopez said: "It was a David-and-Goliath thing."

Said junior forward Jimmy King: "We kind of thrive on that stuff."

These Goliaths have looked vulnerable for a while. After seemingly getting their act together in late January with a nine-game, month-long winning streak that raised their record to 20-4, the Wolverines lost three of their last four regular-season games. An embarrassing, 97-93 overtime defeat at Northwestern March 12 cost Michigan a share of the Big Ten title.

"I was concerned that we weren't going to be able to clear our heads," Fisher said yesterday.

It was after that defeat that the players got together, without the coaches, for an hour-long meeting. They talked about taking responsibility for their actions, about not succumbing to the pressure, of not trying to live up to their press clippings.

"I think we straightened things out," said King.

But the Wolverines continue to make adjustments. They have gotten over the loss of Webber, but sometimes play as if they think he'll run out of the locker room and back onto the court. Rose is still not totally comfortable on the wing, or operating inside, and his outside shot is again erratic. Dugan Fife, who replaced Rose at the point, plays with the fear "of being part of the only Michigan team not to go to the Final Four."

Somehow, Rose apparently thinks that the Fab Four is doomed regardless of what happens. That no matter what they do this weekend in Dallas, no matter if they finally win a national championship and avoid becoming the Houston of the 1990s, the Wolverines and Fisher will never get their due. Certainly not ,, like Duke, or North Carolina. They will also be the guys in the black socks.

"It's like in school when you get straight A's," said Rose. "There's always going to be someone who thinks you've cheated."

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