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NCAA Final Four: Could the Current Michigan Team Beat the Fab 5?

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2013

NCAA Final Four: Could the Current Michigan Team Beat the Fab 5?

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    It's been exactly two decades since the Michigan Wolverines basketball program got to dance on the grandest stage the "Big Dance" has to offer.

    In 1993, the catalysts were a swaggering group of sophomores, still rated as one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time, getting their second kick at the championship can.

    This season's Final Four campaign is spearheaded by a favorite for national player of the year honors and a pair of teammates with famous basketball dads, one of whom is part of a five-man freshman class considered solid in its own right.

    Comparison is inevitable, especially when it involves a polarizing group like the Fab Five, and will likely reach a fever pitch if Michigan can finish its journey and take the national championship. After all, that's a feat that the Fab Five could not accomplish despite trips to both the 1992 and 1993 finals.

    The question in its simplest form: Could this year's Michigan team defeat the sophomore-year Fab Five?

    Come along as we examine this hypothetical showdown piece by piece.

     

    Statistical support courtesy of MGoBlue.com and StatSheet.com.

Point Guard: Jalen Rose vs. Trey Burke

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    With all due respect to this year's National Player of the Year and Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, him matching up against Jalen Rose would look like a father and son dueling in the driveway.

    At 6'0", Burke would need 10 dollars in cab fare to drive around the lanky 6'8" Rose. The 2013 Wolverines would be forced to gear their entire offense around getting Burke free to create. Rose would spend all night running around screens, likely to the point of exhaustion.

    Rose's height advantage would force Burke to move the ball around, and 2013 would be well served if its leader resisted his tendency to take repetitive, ill-advised pull-up jumpers.

    Shot selection aside, Burke would be unlikely to offer the Fab Five any free possessions, as Rose was never a prodigious pickpocket. Only four times this season has Burke turned the ball over more than four times, and one of those was against VCU's turnover-or-bust Havoc defense. In that contest, he also produced 18 points and seven assists to spearhead a 25-point win.

    With Rose on offense, the present-day team would need to swarm him with longer players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. Burke could spend his night guarding Ray Jackson or Jimmy King and run less risk of his height being exploited.

    For most of his career, Rose was a three-turnover per game man, with assist/turnover ratios hovering close to 1.0. A nonstop defensive effort from Hardaway, with Robinson or Burke flashing in for the occasional swat at the ball, could result in a difficult night for Rose. If they allowed the Fab Five's floor general to get comfortable, however, he'd be a threat to strike for 20 points, getting to the rim at will.

    Both are difficult scorers to stop. Both were occasionally prone to trying to take the team on their backs. Rose's size and Burke's quickness form a classic oil-and-water contrast. The difference here would be schematic, and John Beilein's moving, screening offense plays well into all of Burke's strengths.

Shooting Guard: Jimmy King vs. Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    In his latter two seasons at Michigan, Jimmy King's shooting efficiency nosedived without Chris Webber drawing defensive attention. In this matchup, however, with Webber aboard, King would be at the peak of his powers.

    As stated on the point guard slide, the 2013 team might have a better shot at containing Rose by using Hardaway on Rose and switching Burke onto King. The 6'5" King could still get his shot off over Burke, but the smaller man would be unlikely to let King simply catch and shoot.

    The more the Fab Five could get out on fast breaks, the greater King's impact on the matchup would be. He was a superb finisher at the rim, but if 2013 could keep the game confined to half-court sets, Burke would likely be capable of keeping King in front of him.

    With King guarding Hardaway, the second-generation star would face a stiff test. King was always a great perimeter defender and averaged nearly 1.5 steals per game for his career. Hardaway has shown himself prone to inexplicable hot and cold performances, shooting 2-of-9 from three against Binghamton but going 6-of-9 against Ohio State.

    Considering King was one of the Fabs' unsung performers, a battle between him and Hardaway would be a widely assumed advantage for today's Wolverines. It's likely, though, that King could remove Hardaway from the equation, and if that came at the expense of King's offense, so be it.

    Then again, in that 1993 national championship game, Donald Williams got free often enough to drop 25 points and make five of seven attempts from deep. A game like that from Hardaway would be tough for the Fabulous Ones to overcome.

Small Forward: Ray Jackson vs. Nik Stauskas

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    This matchup is one between two players that frequently lapsed into afterthought status, but it could be the most important of the entire game.

    Canadian freshman sniper Nik Stauskas got only one question in the off-day news conference between the regional semifinal and final. As reported by the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin, that question concerned hitting the freshman wall.

    The following day, Stauskas showed the press where they could stick their freshman wall by draining six three-pointers against Florida and blowing the Gators out of Cowboys Stadium before the halftime buzzer sounded.

    Ray Jackson, who was rarely an offensive option until he and King were seniors, would have one task in this game: contain Stauskas. Jackson was the primary shadow for Donald Williams in the '93 title game until he picked up two early fouls. He racked up his third even before the break.

    Stauskas would need a great deal of help to shake free of the always tough Jackson. The Michigan offense would need to work in multiple off-ball screens to get Stauskas free and therefore would feature much less of the freshman simply camping out in the corner.

    Jackson would occasionally find himself open if Stauskas moved to help on Rose or King, but could he convert? For his career, Jackson was a 26 percent three-point shooter and made less than 50 percent of his overall shots. Stauskas helped contain South Dakota State star Nate Wolters in Michigan's NCAA tournament opener, and it's likely he could do the same to the often shaky Jackson.

    If Jackson ever pulled off to help against Hardaway or Burke, Stauskas would undoubtedly make him pay. A flurry from the Mississauga missile launcher would put the Fabs at a sudden disadvantage.

Power Forward: Chris Webber vs. Glenn Robinson III

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    Chris Webber waged a couple of epic duels with Glenn Robinson II, and the 6'7", 240-pound Purdue icon was more than a physical match for the No. 1 pick of the 1993 draft.

    The Big Dog's puppy, Glenn III? Not so much.

    Robinson the younger stands 6'6" but weighs in at 210 pounds with a frame much leaner than his father's. Webber went 11-of-18 in the 1993 title game despite getting leaned on by burly defenders like Eric Montross and George Lynch. He would certainly salivate at the thought of GR3 trying to contain him inside.

    The Fab Five had no qualms about staying with Webber and Juwan Howard as their primary sources of offense, even in the face of a deficit. This focus brought Michigan back from 10 down against Temple in the West regional final, much to Owls coach John Chaney's chagrin.

    Robinson would need to be regularly rotated to another assignment, and the 2013 team would need to keep Jordan Morgan on the floor frequently. Otherwise, Webber could shove Robinson around to the tune of 25 points and 15 rebounds.

    On the plus side, Robinson's length and athletic ability could help him snare a good number of rebounds against the bigger Webber. If the freshman managed to outboard Webber, the 2013 team would save a good number of possessions and points.

    The best defense against Webber would likely be a good offense. Keeping Robinson active on the offensive end could serve to wear down Webber and perhaps put him in foul trouble. Webber fouled out of nine games in two seasons, and the longer 2013 could keep him off the court, the more time Robinson could spend with the less athletic Howard or Eric Riley attempting to guard him.

Center: Juwan Howard vs. Mitch McGary

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    The 6'10", 250-pound Mitch McGary has been a postseason revelation for the 2013 Wolverines, averaging 14.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

    At 6'9" and 250 himself, Juwan Howard is no paperweight. In fact, Howard was a skilled defender who had helped keep Kentucky star Jamal Mashburn without a basket for the final 12-plus minutes of regulation in the national semifinal. In the previous year's national title game, he made Duke star Christian Laettner's first six possessions hell despite stomach cramps and dehydration.

    How much the 2013 Wolverines would rely on McGary is unknown. After all, a major benefit of working the ball inside to the big men is to get the opponent's bigs in foul difficulty. McGary has had only three games all season in which he took more than three foul shots. Besides, he's only a 46 percent shooter at the stripe, so his team asks him to take contact at its own peril.

    Bricks or no, the present-day team would be remiss if it didn't ask McGary to challenge Howard and Webber frequently. The Fab defenders would be likely to swat a few of big Mitch's offerings, but whistles were the enemy in the 1993 title game. Howard and Webber both picked up two fouls midway through the first half, and North Carolina was able to take advantage and surge into the lead.

    With Howard on offense, it would be McGary's turn to get challenged. Howard had plenty of low-post moves in his younger days, relying on those skills more than brute strength. He was, however, turnover-prone, so the 2013 team could make some plays by forcing Howard to make difficult passes out of double-teams.

    The advantage in the middle, though, has to be substantially in Howard's favor. The Fabs used the interior much more extensively than today's Wolverines. Much of McGary's production would have to come off the glass, and he would have his hands full scrapping with a pair of eventual NBA All-Stars.

The Bench

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    Steve Fisher rode the Fab Five for all they were worth. The reason was that the bench, which dubbed itself the "Forgotten Five," didn't do a great deal with the few minutes it received.

    Seven-foot center Eric Riley was a former starter, always capable of a good game if something happened to Webber or Howard. In that 1993 season, Riley ripped 4.8 rebounds per game, third on the team behind the sophomore starters.

    In the 1992 regional semifinal against Oklahoma State, Riley took over for the foul-ridden Webber and produced 15 points and 10 rebounds. In addition, Riley teamed with Howard to stifle the Cowboys' star center, Byron Houston.

    Seniors Rob Pelinka and James Voskuil were occasionally dangerous shooters, but when they entered the game, they were treated as afterthoughts. Voskuil ended his career as a 41 percent shooter from deep. Pelinka is now best known as an NBA superagent, with clients including Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

    Rugged junior Jordan Morgan leads the 2013 bench. His numbers this season were comparable to Riley's (4.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game). Swingman Caris LeVert is such a capable defender that Beilein scrapped plans to redshirt him because he needed LeVert in the lineup.

    Big bodies like Jon Horford, Blake McLimans and Max Bielfeldt might not see many minutes, but it could serve Beilein to throw them in as foul donors against Webber. The 2013 Wolverines could do worse than to put the 53 percent career foul shooter on the line as much as possible, rather than let him riddle them with easy dunks and putbacks.

    The Fab Five's caddies scored a total of 14 points in two games at the 1993 Final Four, and that's about all the production that could be expected out of them here. The modern-day bench may not score much either, but these guys come to play aggressive defense and could harass even the Fabs themselves into some big mistakes.

Coaching: Steve Fisher vs. John Beilein

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    Steve Fisher sat back and let the Fab Five operate. Did he have any other alternative?

    He certainly wasn't going to play Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson 12 minutes per game behind the likes of James Voskuil and Michael Talley, was he?

    At first, Jackson had a hard time finding the floor, never playing more than 26 minutes as a freshman. From there, though, it was all Fabs all the time.

    Three pages into Mitch Albom's book The Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream, the chemistry problems of those two years are given voice through the draft-night frustration of Michael Talley. In 1993, Fisher couldn't even be bothered to name a captain, doing it on a game-by-game basis.

    Meanwhile, John Beilein has a freshman class with NBA talent of its own, but perhaps the most skilled prospect of them all, Glenn Robinson III, is so deferential to the veterans that analysts note him down as passive.

    The Fab Five had no true leader, either on the court or the bench, and the resultant communication issues could easily have been a root cause of Webber's legendary phantom timeout in the 1993 final. "We thought we mentioned [that there were no timeouts]" was all Fisher could say afterward. "Apparently we didn't make the point specific enough."

    While Fisher got a lot of mileage out of the Fab Five's particular improvisational genius, Beilein would enter the arena with a plan in place, and the players would have bought in from the start.

    Beilein's offense can be fairly improvisational on its own, and Burke takes full advantage of that freedom. Still, the 2013 team doesn't often play out of control, and when it does, the coach has a firm enough hand on the wheel to slow things down and get back in the flow.

    This is a major advantage for the 2013 team.

Conclusion

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    In the end, who wins? It all depends on your answers to the following questions:

    Does Rose contain Burke?

    Do Jackson or King ignore Stauskas?

    Do Webber and Howard get McGary in foul trouble, or vice versa?

    Does Robinson have to call out the National Guard to slow Webber?

    Does anyone off either bench score more than four points?

    Do the Fab Five have to burn all their timeouts early?

    That last is a serious question, because this game would finish tight. Webber would likely have an enormous game, and Beilein would have to be careful to regulate minutes for both McGary and Morgan. Playing the two together for long periods would deprive 2013 of one of its scoring threats.

    The current team's offense is screen-heavy, meaning that the Fabs would be forced to fight under, over and around bodies to chase an entire lineup of skilled ball-handlers, not just Burke. By game's end, both teams would have to be concerned about losing their legs.

    Jackson tended to find himself in foul trouble late in the season, committing nine fouls in 53 minutes at the Final Four. He could be more difficult for Fisher to replace than Webber or Howard, one of whom could sit in favor of Eric Riley and not miss a beat. Extensive minutes for Pelinka or Voskuil would be dangerous for the 1993 squad.

    The Fab Five would try to run out on defensive rebounds and would get a good number of fast-break points. They would also give some back through turnovers. The 1993 team averaged nearly 16 turnovers per game, compared to this season's 9.4. Going tempo-free, 2013 has a 14.4 turnover percentage to 1993's 17.7.

    In the end, that inefficiency and the Fabs' 65 percent foul shooting would leave too many points on the table, and the 2013 Wolverines would escape this game with a close victory, perhaps three or four points. The Fab Five falls short one more time.

     

    Where do the Fab Five's championship games rank among the best of the past 51 years? Click here.

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