DALLAS -- As a high school senior, Arkansas sophomore Scotty Thurman would watch and admire the accomplishments of Michigan's Fab Five, and even last season he watched with respect as the Wolverines' talented group of sophomores fell one victory short of winning a national championship.
In this afternoon's Midwest Regional final, Thurman will come face-to-face with what's now the Fab Four, a group whose aura alone has been good enough to intimidate some teams. But don't expect Thurman, competing against his better-known opponents, to be in awe.
"This is a new year -- what they've done in the past has nothing to do with us," Thurman said yesterday. "We feel that we're the best team in the country, and that they should be intimidated by us."
It's a game that many in Dallas wanted going into this weekend and it has arrived: No. 1 Arkansas (28-3) against No. 3 Michigan (24-7) for a trip to the Final Four next week in Charlotte, N.C.
How big is this game, perhaps the best matchup of all the weekend regional finals? Even President Clinton is expected to attend the game that matches a Michigan team that has made two straight appearances in the national championship game against an Arkansas team that, to many, is hard to match in terms of talent and depth.
"The nights we play well," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said, "it would take a heck of a team to beat us."
That challenge looms for Michigan, which has had a difficult path reaching the regional final. The Wolverines needed overtime to beat Pepperdine by four in the first round, and beat Texas by five in the second round. The Wolverines had a 21-point lead on Maryland in the second half on Friday, only to see the Terrapins close to within six in the closing minutes.
"I always thought their team has played up to their talent," Richardson said of Michigan. "Not too many teams can do that."
Should the Wolverines do that today, it will be an entertaining game to watch. Arkansas has been impressive in its three tournament victories, winning by an average of 15.3 points, including Friday's 103-84 win over Tulsa. The Razorbacks have shot 60.5 percent in their three tournament games, an NCAA record through for a minimum of three games.
"Nolan Richardson has a lot of players -- they can roll those guys out 10-11 strong," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said. "Tempo will be important. We're going to have to pick and choose when we run and when we pull back. We're going to run some, but hopefully the score won't reach triple figures."
It won't if the Wolverines can be effective on defense as they were against Maryland, essentially shutting down heralded freshman Joe Smith, who had 14 points, and was limited to three of eight shots from the field. The key was the defensive play of center Juwan Howard, who added 24 points and 11 rebounds and has emerged as the team's go-to player after being in the shadows of Chris Webber the past two years.
"In my own opinion, I was always that good," was Howard's response when asked when he developed into an effective low-post defender.
Howard will match up with perhaps the most improved front line in college basketball, with Corliss "McNasty" Williamson (6 feet 7, 245 pounds) the main returnee up front.
"Last year we over-achieved, mainly with guys 6-4 and 6-5 up front," Richardson said. "When we faced North Carolina [in last ,, year's East Region semifinals] we ran up against [7-foot] Eric Montross and two 7-footers on the bench. We had to get some size."
Thus Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson -- both 6-11 freshmen centers -- were brought in to add height to the front line. Robinson starts along with junior Dwight Stewart (6-9, 260 pounds, eight of 10 from three-point range in the tournament) and Williamson.
Shooting 75.7 percent from the field in his three tournament games this year, Williamson has been nearly unstoppable, leading Richardson to say, "pound for pound, he might be the strongest basketball player in the world."
The success of Arkansas -- and the fact it will be playing at its home away from home, Reunion Arena -- has made Michigan almost a secondary story here. It doesn't take away from the expectations of a team that, because it started five freshmen two years ago, is clearly one of the most talked about teams in recent years.
"The first year we were trying to prove something to everybody, to prove we belonged," Michigan guard Jalen Rose said. "The second year we were trying to live up to everyone's expectations -- to win by 30 each game.
"This year is a mix of both -- some people expected us to fall off, some expected us to go all the way. [Today] will be the test of just who we are."
MIDWEST FINAL: ARKANSAS (28-3) vs. MICHIGAN (24-7)
Site: Reunion Arena, Dallas
Time: 4 p.m. today
TV: Channels 11, 9
Outlook: The last of the four regional finals provides perhaps the best matchup. Arkansas, looking to reach its first Final Four since 1990, finished the regular season ranked second. The Razorbacks constantly run the ball and average 94.6 points. That fast-paced attack is resulting in easy shots -- the Razorbacks are shooting 60.5 percent in their three postseason games. But that offense is mainly triggered by its defense, which has held 17 of 31 opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. In Friday's win, Arkansas held Tulsa to 35.1 percent. Michigan has played in two straight Final Fours, but will have to play extremely well today to accomplish a three-peat. The bench played well on Friday after starters Jimmy King and Ray Jackson got into foul trouble, but Michigan cannot afford to lose key players against a relentless Arkansas team. The only team to beat Arkansas in the past 17 games was Kentucky -- and the Wildcats needed 16 three-pointers to pull that off. The other two Arkansas losses came by a combined three points. It's the depth of Arkansas that has gotten the team this far. And it's the team's depth that might wear Michigan down and get the Razorbacks to the Final Four.