ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – Tim Hardaway Jr. was born in March 1992, the same month the Fab Five captivated the college basketball world by swaggering their way to the Final Four as freshmen.
Now Hardaway is a freshman at Michigan, and he had a chance to watch a documentary recently about those famous Wolverines.
“I loved it,” Hardaway said. “It’s very motivating – to see how they just never backed down from anybody.”
Michigan may finally be starting its long-awaited climb back to national relevance. The aftermath of the Fab Five era wasn’t kind to the program, which endured sanctions and years of mediocrity, but on Friday the eighth-seeded Wolverines will play ninth-seeded Tennessee in the NCAA West Regional.
With three freshmen and a sophomore playing key roles, this might be only the beginning for Michigan.
“I really believe that this could be the start of something very special,” Hardaway said. “I’m happy I’m here.”
Michigan won the national title in 1989, and the Fab Five took the Wolverines to the Final Four in 1992 and 1993, though the banners from the latter two years were removed from Crisler Arena. A federal investigation revealed that now-deceased booster Ed Martin gave Chris Webber and three non-Fab Five players more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes, and the NCAA forced the school to dissociate from them until 2013.
The relationship between the university and that era is a complicated one. Three-fifths of the Fab Five – Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – were honored by the school earlier this season, with Webber and Juwan Howard not in attendance.
The ESPN documentary caught the attention of the current Michigan team.
“Even though some things happened with the Fab Five, I think all the players that attend here really feel a connection with them,” guard Darius Morris said.
Junior Zack Novak, an elder statesman on a team with no seniors, said he doesn’t think he’d have been able to crack the Michigan starting lineup back then.
“You look at those guys – the way they revolutionized the way the game was played,” Novak said. “I think at the end of the day, we all have the same goal. I know they’re all talking like they just want to get Michigan basketball back to being one of those top programs in the country – the same thing we want, too.”
Michigan went without an NCAA tournament appearance from 1999-2008 before beating Clemson two years ago. That was John Beilein’s second season as the Wolverines’ coach, and although the team took a step back in 2010, Michigan exceeded expectations this season. The Wolverines went 9-4 down the stretch, swept rival Michigan State and made the NCAA field with room to spare.
“Made a little run at the end, people started talking, and then all of a sudden we’re an eight seed,” Novak said. “It’s been fun, but I think we’ve still got some work to do.”
Not just this season, but in the future.
No matter how far these Wolverines advance, there’s a sense that the program might finally be turning a corner because of how much young talent is on the roster. Hardaway, Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz are all freshmen, and Morris is a sophomore. Hardaway and Morgan have started every game this season, and Morris has started all but one.
“We finished fourth in the Big Ten, in a very close tie for fourth, and we’d like to get to the top of the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “We do like this foundation right now. We think it’s got a higher ceiling than we are right now.”
As excited as Beilein is about facing Tennessee, he’s also thrilled about the new basketball player development center being built next to Crisler Arena. The arena itself is also being renovated – some seats in the upper level had already been removed when the team watched the selection show there on Sunday night.
“I think what we’re doing right now, when you see those seats removed and you see that foundation going up over there … people know we’re serious about Michigan basketball. We’re not resting on the block ‘M’ – we know that we have to compete,” Beilein said. “It’s still an arms race in so many different ways, and we’re doing everything we can to keep up.”
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