Though the Michigan Wolverines entered the 1991-1992 basketball season with a freshmen class billed as the best recruiting collective ever assembled and a #20 national ranking, plenty of questions lingered. Would the freshmen, who combined to average 145 points as high school seniors, be able to produce under big-time college basketball’s brightest lights at a time when upperclassmen still reigned?
“It’s a quantum leap for all of them,” Michigan head coach Steve Fisher said of his Fab Five, a moniker the group of Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King captured before even stepping onto the college hardwood. “This will be a teaching year for us and them.”
In pre-season previews, basketball observers largely agreed that the Wolverines, coming off a March Madness-less 14-15 campaign in 1990-1991, needed their freshmen to mature – and mature fast – if the Wolverines were to re-establish themselves as a legitimate tournament team.
During the season’s nine-game conference slate, it was clear Michigan and its precocious group had the goods. The Wolverines won eight of nine games with their only loss coming to #1 Duke in overtime. Michigan then survived the typical Big Ten gauntlet, capturing wins over the likes of #13 Michigan State and #2 Indiana en route to a third-place league finish.
With a 20-8 overall, the Fab Five had successfully sparked Michigan’s return to the Big Dance. The #6 seed in the Southeast Region, the Wolverines dropped Temple 73-66 in the first round before beating back upset-minded East Tennessee State 102-90 in round two.
In the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan – thanks in large part to a 15-point, 10-rebound effort from junior Eric Riley filling in for a foul-plagued Webber – squeaked out a hard-fought 75-72 victory over Oklahoma State.
“We’re going to shock the world!” Rose screamed after knocking off a Cowboys squad that had spent much of the season in the AP Top 10.
Next up for the Wolverines: a third meeting with rival Ohio State, the Big Ten’s regular season champions. In the previous two months, the Buckeyes had downed the Wolverines twice – 68-58 in Ann Arbor on Feb. 2 and then 77-66 in Columbus on March 3. Those victories, Ohio State guard Jamaal Brown beamed, had silenced Michigan’s rambunctious rookies.
"They didn’t have any reason to talk,” Brown said as the rematch approached.
But this time, many acknowledged, was different. Now, a Final Four spot was on the line. Now, the Fab Five were brimming with confidence after 31 games. Now, the Wolverines were riding a wave of intense euphoria.
“They’re extremely confident, fearful of nothing,” Fisher said of his five freshmen starters.
At Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, Michigan’s freshmen played like veterans while the Buckeyes’ seasoned group led by All-American Jimmy Jackson stuttered and stalled.
In Michigan’s 75-71 overtime victory over Ohio State, the Fab Five combined to score 73 points on 60 percent shooting from the field. Webber led the way with 23 points and 11 rebounds while Rose pitched in 20 and King scored 15. In contrast, Ohio State’s two leading scorers, Jackson, a junior, and senior Chris Jent, made only 11 of 32 shots while committing 11 turnovers and eight fouls.
“I think they grew up,” Ohio State’s Jackson said after the loss. “They executed down the stretch when they had to and we were like the team that hadn’t been here before.”
Less than a year after being in high school, Michigan’s Fab Five was in the Final Four. Ready or not, here they were, getting plenty of credit for their talent, not enough credit for their grit, and defying the commonly accepted logic that March Madness devours the young.
“Do you believe us now?” Webber shouted repeatedly after the Wolverines took down Ohio State to set up a matchup with Cincinnati the following weekend in Minneapolis.
Even his coach, once a naysayer, had to admit his folly. In an unprecedented accomplishment, a team starting five freshmen and coming off a sub-.500 campaign was in the national semifinals.
“Everybody kept telling me (that Michigan could go to the Final Four), but I was skeptical,” Fisher said. “I believe now.”