In 1992, Michigan’s freshman class took the college basketball world by storm. The quintet of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson reached the NCAA final before losing to Duke. 1993 Michigan basketball brought all five back to make a run at the program’s second national championship in five years.
To no one’s surprise, the Wolverines were the preseason #1 for the 1993 college basketball season. Webber went 6’9” and would average 19 points/10 rebounds. Rose, the 6’8” point guard, averaged 15 points/4 rebounds/4 assists. Howard joined Webber down low and added a 15/7 line each night. King was a double-digit scorer on the wing with Jackson being the all-around contributor that could surprise an opponent if they forgot about him.
But the season started off with a stumble. Michigan did not play well at Rice in the opener, barely surviving 75-71. Then came a high-profile rematch at Duke. Even with the Blue Devils now without Christian Laettner, the Wolverines still lost 79-68.
Perhaps it was the needed wakeup call. Michigan closed December with a nice run through a three-day tournament in Hawaii. They beat NCAA-bound Nebraska (who was not a Big Ten rival until 2012), then beat eventual Final Four teams in North Carolina and Kansas. The Wolverines were #3 in the polls as Big Ten play began.
The conference run started at Purdue, an NCAA Tournament team with a great player in Glenn Robinson. Michigan won 80-70. They won easily at mediocre Wisconsin and set the stage for the game everyone in the Midwest was waiting for—the battle with Bob Knight’s great Indiana team, who had also made the Final Four in 1992 and also had national championship expectations.
In an epic battle in Ann Arbor, Michigan trailed 76-75 in the closing seconds. Webber grabbed an offensive rebound and appeared certain to win it with a putback. Until Hoosier forward Alan Henderson came from behind with a block. The Wolverines had fallen.
They recovered by rolling through a soft spot of the schedule against Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio State. But on Super Bowl Sunday, just before America watched the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, Michigan lost again. They went to Iowa, where the Hawkeyes were putting together a season that eventually netted them a 4-seed in the NCAAs. The Wolverines fell 88-80 and were now two games back of steady Indiana.
The calendar flipped to February and Michigan edged out a mediocre Michigan State team, 73-69. The second run through the conference schedule began, and the Wolverines again knocked off Purdue and Wisconsin. It set up a Sunday afternoon Valentine’s Day battle with Indiana, this time in Bloomington.
IU was still unbeaten in league play, so this was desperation time for Michigan in the conference race. They took another one-point loss, 93-92, although the score was deceptive in this one. The Wolverines trailed by double digits much of the second half and only a three-pointer at the buzzer made this game look like a nailbiter.
There would be no Big Ten title in Ann Arbor, but March was what the Fab Five had their eye on, and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was still very much in play. Michigan got rolling and closed the season with seven straight wins, including a revenge W over Iowa. There was no conference tournament in the Big Ten until 1998, so this was the last statement for the Selection Committee. It was good enough—the Wolverines were the #1 seed in the West.
The opening weekend was in Tucson and would be hair-rising. After defensive dominance led Michigan to the expected rout of 16-seed Coastal Carolina, UCLA was lying in wait. The Bruins had a couple of sophomores, Ed O’Bannon and Tyus Edney, that would key a national title run two years later. They had a guard in Shon Tarver who would be unstoppable in this day. And they put Michigan in a 19-point hole in the second half.
That gap is serious at any time, but also remember that the shot clock in 1993 was 45 seconds, rather than 30. The ability of the Bruins to shorten the game was much greater than it would be today. Even so, the Wolverines rallied. Webber went off for 27 points/14 rebounds. Jackson, so often the forgotten member of the Fab Five, stepped up with his second straight 19-point game. This one saved the season, as Michigan pulled out an 86-84 win.
It wasn’t impressive, but they had survived—something 2-seed Arizona and 4-seed Georgia Tech could not say. Michigan went to Seattle for a regional that was gutted by upsets and faced 12-seed George Washington. Again, the Wolverines were less than dominant. They were only up two at the half, but with Howard going for 17/10 and the defense holding GW to 34 percent from the floor, Michigan won 72-64.
The last game of regional final weekend would be Michigan and Temple. The Owls had taken out 3-seed Vanderbilt, but they played a matchup zone that could be difficult to attack and had an excellent wing player in Aaron McKie. The Wolverines again started slow and this time were in a 35-27 halftime hole.
Again, they were too talented to be held off forever. Webber had 13 points/12 rebounds and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Although that honor should have gone to Howard, who went for 11/9 against Temple, in addition to being the best player against George Washington. Either way, the 77-72 win sent Michigan back to the Final Four.
The combination of Wolverine struggles against relatively soft competition, and Kentucky’s maniacal blitzkrieg through their own regional, had a lot of people doubting Michigan in the run-up to Saturday’s featured semifinal game. Those doubters ignored the fact that the Wildcats were basically Jamal Mashburn and a bunch of role players, while the Wolverines were loaded with lottery picks.
It was an outstanding game. The combination of Mashburn’s 26 point and Kentucky hitting seven treys to Michigan’s none, kept it tight. But the Wolverines were the team controlling the interior. Especially Webber, who went off for 27/13 and keyed what was now a customary rebounding advantage for Michigan. Howard added 17. The game went to overtime, but the Wolverines survived 81-78.
There was one more hurdle left and it was fellow 1-seed North Carolina. It would be another classic game. The Wolverines were hurt by the fact Howard only scored seven points and Rose continued what was a trend of poor shooting during the tournament. Webber had 23 points/11 rebounds and kept his team in the game until the fateful final sequence.
Michigan trailed 73-71 in the closing seconds. Webber had secured a rebound and for some reason all the guards ran back up the floor, leaving the big man to bring it up. Webber obviously traveled and the UNC bench erupted, but the officials had also trotted back up the floor and didn’t see it. But Webber’s clear discomfort became more obvious when he barreled up the right sideline, straight into a trap in the corner. He turned to call a timeout…but none were left. It was a technical foul and the game was all but over. Michigan lost 77-71.
It was the beginning of the end for the Fab Five era. Webber went pro a couple months later. The remaining four players came back and made the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Arkansas. Rose and Howard left for the NBA after that season and the program fell from prominence.
They defined college basketball in the early 1990s in terms of media coverage and cultural impact, but the Fab Five never won a title—not a Big Ten crown and not a national one. 1993 was the closest they got.