Steve Fisher was one of college basketball’s great stories in 1989, but in three short years his seat had began to get a little warm. Fisher took over the Michigan program on an interim basis after head coach Bill Frieder left and promptly started his career 6-0 with a national championship.
After getting the permanent job, Fisher began to struggle. Michigan lost in the second of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, then struggled to a 14-15 record in 1991. He needed to turn it around and the 1992 Michigan basketball team had the greatest recruiting class ever put together.
They were known as “The Fab Five”–incoming freshmen Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson became the starting lineup before their first season was done. They electrified the country, become cultural icons and won more than a few basketball games along the way.
Rose was the top scorer in 1992, averaging 18ppg, although Webber was the best all-around player, averaging 15 points/10 rebounds per game. These two were clearly the best of the class and both went on to good NBA careers. Howard was clearly the third-best player. He averaged an 11/7 as a freshman and also enjoyed a long run in the NBA. King and Jackson didn’t make an NBA splash, but were solid college players.
The hype surrounding the Fab Five had Michigan ranked #20 to start the year in spite of the program’s recent downward trajectory. They hosted defending NCAA champion Duke in December and took the Blue Devils to overtime before losing 88-75. The Wolverines were able to beat NCAA Tournament-bound BYU 86-83 in the other notable non-conference game.
Big Ten play had a spotty start after the New Year. They lost at Minnesota and at home to Purdue, neither an NCAA-caliber team. A decisive loss at Indiana, one of the conference frontrunners, was part of a 2-3 start in conference games.
An 89-79 win over archrival and NCAA-bound Michigan State got the Wolverines back on track and even a ten-point loss to Ohio State was no big deal—the Buckeyes would end up conference champions.
Three straight wins, including a pair of NCAA-bound Iowa followed, but the inconsistencies of youth resurfaced in a 70-59 home loss to Michigan State. After beating lowly Minnesota and Northwestern, the season hits its lowest point in a 96-78 loss at Wisconsin, then a bad program with few signs of life.
After falling again to Ohio State by double-digits, this time 77-66, Michigan was a mediocre 8-7 in Big Ten play. They were still 17-8 overall and in good shape for an NCAA bid, but there was nothing suggesting that anything special was at hand, at least not this year.
That began to change on a nationally televised Sunday afternoon home game with Indiana. The Wolverines delivered a big blow to the Hoosiers’ conference title hopes with a 68-60 win. Michigan followed by winning at Purdue and closed the year beating Illinois at home.
There was no conference tournament in the Big Ten prior to 1998, so this ended the regular season. The late push was enough to get the Wolverines a 6-seed in the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan flew to Atlanta where the first opponent was Temple, where guard Aaron McKie was one of the country’s better players. McKie didn’t play badly, but by forcing him to shoot 6-for-15, the Wolverines neutralized the Owls’ best weapon. Meanwhile, Michigan’s own offense sizzled. They shot 60 percent as a team, with Rose and King each scoring 19. Webber controlled the inside with 12 rebounds the result was a 73-66 win.
Fortune smiled on the Wolverines that night when 3-seed Arizona was upset by East Tennessee State. Michigan had a wide-open path to the Sweet 16 and they took full advantage, going up 54-34 by halftime and winning 102-90. The inside game was the key as Webber went off for 30 points and Howard added 23.
There would be no bracket breaks in the regionals. Michigan was the lowest seed traveling to Rupp Arena in Lexington and 2-seed Oklahoma State was on deck. In an outstanding basketball game, the Wolverines’ inside game was again the difference. They won the rebounding battle 37-25. Rose’s height in the backcourt was a big factor, as he grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 25 points. Michigan pulled out a 75-72 win.
The Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry has a long and storied lore. There’s not the same richness to the basketball battles, but 1992 would be the exception to the rule. The Buckeyes were the region’s top seed. Forward Jim Jackson was the best player in the Big Ten, one of the best in the country and on his way to being the fourth overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. They had handled Michigan two previous times. Now the two schools met with a Final Four spot on the line.
It was a classic basketball game by any measure. Webber scored 23 points and had 11 rebounds. King was a big X-factor, shooting 7-for-10 and scoring 15 points. But no one was better than Rose. In an overtime game, he played all 45 minutes. He scored 20 points, got six more rebounds and sealed his Most Outstanding Player of the Regional award. Michigan won it 75-71.
Improbably, the freshmen were going to the Final Four in Minneapolis. They caught a break in that the best two teams left—Duke and Indiana—would have to play in Saturday’s semifinals, while Michigan played a 4-seed in Cincinnati.
The Wolverines trailed the early game of Semifinal Saturday by three at the half. But the Bearcats were a smaller team and Michigan’s size—particularly Webber—was too much to handle. The center posted a 16/11 stat line and keyed a decisive 45-27 edge in rebounds. King, probably the most underrated player on the Fab Five, scored 17 more. Defensively, Michigan forced Cincinnati into 40 percent shooting. The 76-72 win sent the kids onto the Monday Night stage to play for a national championship.
It was the first time in history that five freshmen started an NCAA final and for twenty minutes of basketball it looked like the magic might go on. Michigan led Duke 31-30 at the half. But experience took over and the Wolverines shot poorly for the first time in the tournament, settling for 38 percent from the floor. Duke pulled away to a 71-51 win.
The 1992 Michigan basketball season was still the start of a two-year run where all five players stayed in school. They made it back to the NCAA final again in 1993 before losing a crushing game to North Carolina.
There’s a mixed legacy for the Fab Five—their accomplishments have been officially disowned by the NCAA and the school due to recruiting violations. On the court, they didn’t win a Big Ten title or a national championship. But there’s no question they were a cultural phenomena like college basketball has not seen before or since. And though there was no title, that 10-2 record in the NCAAs over the two years they were together is nothing to sneer at.