The Michigan players are too young to remember that the last time their basketball program cut down nets after winning a regional final the team was known not as the Wolverines but the Fab Five.
Other than forward Glenn Robinson III, whose father played against that famous crew, his Michigan teammates only know the Fab Five’s legacy through articles, old game footage and one heavily biased ESPN documentary.
“They had a great legacy,” Robinson III said Sunday. “They changed college basketball.”
Notice he didn’t say “for the better.” Here is what they should know: They are better than the Fab Five and their impact will ultimately be of greater significance. This Michigan team is not anywhere as talented as that famous quintet, but they are better stewards for the game and their school than the crew that made glorifying underachievement as chic as baggy shorts.
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On Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium, Michigan formally returned to its place in national basketball relevance by defeating Florida 79-59 in the South Regional final to advance to the Final Four.
The last time the Wolverines reached the Final Four was 1993. You may recall that appearance was punctuated by a rather infamous timeout called by forward Chris Webber, the best player on a starting lineup with three future NBA stars.
The Fab Five broke up without reaching another Final Four. Despite those realities, their legacy endures as a group that celebrates itself as revolutionaries who changed the game. Don’t buy it. Thanks mostly to Jalen Rose’s ceaseless campaigning and a heavy dose of revisionist history, the new and improved legacy of the Fab Five glosses over the fact that their presence in Ann Arbor led to zero titles, an NCAA probation and effectively destroyed this program for two decades.
That crew was an overly indulged, excessively enabled pack of me-first whiners who cared more about what they didn’t have than what they did have. Twenty years later, we know their impact was more about basketball fashion than a basketball game.
“I really don’t know,” freshman forward Mitch McGary said. “I had heard of the Fab Five, but I was never really a basketball guy.”
Not until coach John Beilein was hired away from West Virginia in 2007 has Michigan begun to look like those Michigan teams of the 1970s and ’80s when Johnny Orr and Bill Frieder took advantage of Michigan’s many amenities as one of the biggest state schools in America. Back when you knew names like Roy Tarpley, Glen Rice, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught and Rumeal Robinson.
Watching Michigan impressively dismantle Florida from the opening tip, it is clear the Wolverines are finally in a better place and should be for a while. Maybe the best place it’s been since before Steve Fisher landed the greatest — and ultimately the most destructive — recruiting class in NCAA history.
Players such as Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. may receive a lot of press because they are the sons of famous NBA dads. They’re good and selfless, but their last names may create expectations that their games might not be able to match.
The real core of this team’s success doesn’t have pro lineage:
• Sophomore guard Trey Burke is one of the top three players in college today. Because he is but maybe 6 feet tall, his game may not translate up to the NBA, but if you are Michigan, the little guy with a killer jump shot has been as vital to the success of this program as any one player.
• Freshman forward Mitch McGary has a broad NBA frame and should eventually be a pro.
• Freshman guard Nik Stauskas looks unassuming. Against Florida in the first half, he had 19 points, including five 3-pointers. At one point, Stauskas had 17 points to the Gators’ 17; at the time, Michigan had 41.
But unlike the freshman class in 1991, none of the warnings appear to exist today. No. 1, the culture around the game is different. Good players are expected to leave early. No. 2, there does not appear to be a personality on this team as divisive as Rose, or a petulant baby like Webber. No. 3, Beilein is a much better game coach than Fisher.
The Fab Five’s real legacy was more of a marketing gimmick than basketball. The potential legacy of this group is much greater.
“They never won a national championship,” Robinson III said, “and that’s the only way I see how we can be better.”
They may not even need to do that much.