At Michigan, it's just 5 freshmen

November 30, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

Maybe Steve Fisher signed the wrong number of recruits. Maybe the Michigan basketball coach should have brought only two blue-chippers -- three tops -- to Ann Arbor this year.

Why did he have to sign five, just as he did four years ago? And why did they all have to be some kind of high school All-American, including the near-consensus No. 1 player in the country?

"I was looking for six guys," Fisher said last week. "You know something? There isn't any talk about this in the local media. They aren't the Fab anything. They're just five guys."

But comparisons have been made.

They were raised last week in Lahaina, Hawaii, where the Wolverines looked far from impressive in placing third among the eight teams at the Maui Invitational.

They will be brought up again tonight, when No. 17 Michigan takes on ninth-ranked Arizona on the second night of the inaugural Great Eight Basketball Festival at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. They will be heard for the rest of the season.

"We'll probably be hearing it the rest of our careers at Michigan," said freshman forward Maurice Taylor, the most, uh, fab of the newcomers this year.

But Fisher is right: This isn't the Fab Five reincarnate. There is no Chris Webber, no Jalen Rose, maybe even no Juwan Howard. Nobody is writing a book about them or even making their Final Four plans around them.

Jerod Ward might have been considered the best high school player in the country as a senior last season in Clinton, Miss., but the 6-foot-9, 215-

pound center hasn't even been the best Michigan freshman so far.

"He's started a little slower than I hoped," Fisher said of Ward, who was schooled by the likes of Tulane's Jerald Honeycutt and Arizona State's Mario Bennett en route to a dismal 6-for-20 shooting performance in Maui. "He's rushing his shot. He's not in a comfort zone."

Nor are the rest of the Wolverines. Seniors Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, the two remaining members of college basketball's most storied recruiting class, seem out of sorts with Rose and Howard having left to join Webber in the NBA.

"What was an assist last year is a turnover right now," said Jackson, who, at 15.7 points a game, is just behind King and right ahead of Taylor in scoring. "I think there's a lot of pressure on everybody, from the coaching staff to the players. When you go to the championship game twice and make the final eight the other year, expectations can get pretty crazy. We're just not as good as we were. We're too young."

It was obvious last week. The Michigan offense sputtered for long stretches, and the defense, except for one inspired surge against Utah, lacked intensity. The Wolverines sandwiched narrow victories around a 17-point rout by eventual Maui Invitational champion Arizona State.

"If we want to have a program that represents Michigan like teams in the past, it doesn't matter if we have 22 turnovers and no order on offense, but we need to play good defense," said Fisher, who might

have indicted himself with that statement.

Fisher's relaxed coaching style has come under scrutiny again, just as it did several times during the Fab Five's short reign. When Tulane stormed back from a 17-point deficit, little was done to stop the Green Wave. When the Sun Devils stormed out to a similarly big lead, no adjustments were made.

"Lots of talent, but no discipline," said one NBA scout.

If Michigan's sheer talent doesn't overcome its questionable cohesiveness, it could make for a long winter in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines and Indiana were picked to be the class of the Big Ten this season, but both teams showed their inexperience in Hawaii. (The Hoosiers were even worse, their only victory a 13-point decision of Division II Chaminade.)

Fisher has the most problematic type of mix in college basketball: Most of the best players on his team are seniors and freshmen. No matter how selfless they've been the first three years, it's understandable that King and Jackson want the spotlight now. No matter how talented they might be, players such as Ward, Taylor and Maceo Baston are not quite ready to take over.

"With any team, it takes time to jell," said King.

Said Fisher: "We've got some good players, but we need time to become a good team. I don't think that anybody predicted we'd be world-beaters. Back home, everyone knows that we were going to be young."

One of the reasons for the slow

start was a preseason knee injury to sophomore guard Bobby Crawford. Considered by many as the team's rising star -- he was invited to work out with the Philadelphia 76ers by John Lucas last summer -- Crawford was cleared to play Monday.

It has left junior Dugan Fife starting at the point, a position he played last year after Fisher moved Rose to small forward. Though Fife was serviceable feeding players such as Howard in the post and Rose on the wing, he will need to become more offensive-minded for the Wolverines to have a chance to win their league.

"We didn't intend to start with a losing record," said Fife, who failed to score in two of the three games in Hawaii. "It's a long season, and we'll have time to find ourselves."

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