It was one of those Tense moments for which Michigan's five heralded freshmen supposedly would be unprepared. The Wolverines trailed Duke, last season's national champion and this season's top-ranked team, by five points with less than 10 minutes left in the second half last Saturday when forward Chris Webber, the most fabulous of the Fab Five, came down with a defensive rebound. As Blue Devil defenders slapped at the ball, Webber's reaction spoke volumes: He broke into a grin so wide that his mouthpiece almost popped out. Then he casually flipped the ball to a teammate.
The smile seemed to be a message for Duke, a way of letting the Blue Devils know that Webber and his precocious teammates would not be easily rattled. It also may have been a smile for all those hoops skeptics who had expected Duke to teach the young Wolverines a thing or two about humility.
"I was just having a little fun," Webber said later. "I mean, some people seemed to think we'd come in with our knees shaking against Duke. Maybe some young teams would, but we're not that way. I've been telling people and telling people, We're not really freshmen."
They're certainly not ordinary freshmen. Webber, a forward, and his classmates—center Juwan Howard, forward Ray Jackson and guards Jimmy King and Jalen Rose—proved that fact against Duke, even though Michigan ultimately fell to the Blue Devils 88-85 in overtime. By the time Duke escaped from Ann Arbor with its ranking intact and record unblemished, the best-freshman-class-ever label, with which the Michigan newcomers had been saddled, was more than mere hyperbole. In their first exposure to elite college competition, the Fab Five proved they are as good as advertised.
December 23, 1991
Each of the freshmen, but particularly Webber and Rose, has a brashness that comes with a youthfulness that has rarely known defeat. They spent most of the early season, during which they ran up a 4-0 record against outmanned opponents, making it clear that they were not the slightest bit intimidated by the impending matchup with the Blue Devils, even as Duke, now 5-0, was trouncing highly regarded St. John's on Dec. 5. "I'm sick and tired of hearing how good Duke is," Webber said just two days before the Wolverines met the Blue Devils.
Webber had reason to be self-confident. At only 18, he is a rock-solid 6'9" and 240 pounds. He was superb against Duke, with 27 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in 39 minutes, and was even more of a force than the Blue Devils' All-America center, Christian Laettner, who had 24 points and eight rebounds in 37 exhausting minutes. By the time Webber fouled out—1:12 into overtime, with the score tied—it was obvious that only five games into his college career he had become a star. He nearly won the game at the end of regulation when he heaved the ball from beyond midcourt and it hit the front of the rim. Had it gone in, adoring Michigan fans might have retired his number on the spot.
"Chris gives them a presence," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski afterward. "Forget about asking if he's one of the best freshmen [in the country]. He's one of the best players. He's beyond his years."
Webber also has star quality. He can be a smiling terror in the mold of former UNLV star Larry Johnson, and when Webber's not grinning, he's usually talking. "I told Christian, "I'm not Shaquille [O'Neal], I'm not Alonzo [Mourning],' " Webber said, referring to two top centers whom Laettner had outplayed. " 'I'm Chris, and now you've got me to worry about.' "
Michigan's top three scorers against Duke—Webber, Rose (18 points, six assists) and King (15 points)—led the Wolverines back from a 17-point first-half deficit. Michigan made up most of that with an exhilarating 14-0 run in the second half. It ended with a Webber dunk that put the home team ahead 57-56, the Wolverines' first lead since 2-0.
After a ragged first half, the 6'8" Rose was almost as impressive as Webber was for the entire game. He scored all his points in the second half and spent much of his time at point guard, helping the Wolverines handle Duke's intense defensive pressure, which had bothered Michigan early in the game. "He was big enough to look over the top and make the pass when we'd try to trap," Krzyzewski said. "He'll cause matchup problems for a lot of teams."
The talents of Howard and Jackson weren't as obvious against Duke as those of their fellow freshmen. Howard's biggest contribution was in using his massive 6'9", 242-pound body to wear down Laettner. He also got eight rebounds. Jackson played only three minutes, but he had already been impressive enough in early practices that Michigan coach Steve Fisher chose not to redshirt him, as had been widely expected.
The Fab Five has Fisher—whose team finished eighth in the Big Ten last season—anxious to start the rugged conference season. "We talked about using this game as a barometer to check where we were at this point," Fisher said. "From that standpoint, I have a good feeling about this team."
In the end, it was the Blue Devils' greater calm under fire that helped them survive. After Webber hit a three-pointer to give the Wolverines a 73-68 lead with 1:41 left in regulation, Duke point guard Bobby Hurley replied 11 seconds later with a trey of his own. And Michigan made crucial mistakes down the stretch.
But in their first significant test, the Michigan freshmen proved that they belong at the head of the class, which came as no surprise to any of them. "We've played against a lot of these guys before," said Rose. "Laettner, [Duke forward] Grant Hill, we've played with them and against them at camps and in summer leagues. Some of us have worked out with some of the Detroit Pistons."
The young Wolverines seem to respect nothing so much as their own talent. "Jimmy King said to me the other day that when we find out how good we are, it's going to be scary," Webber said. "I think he's right." But Webber didn't look scared at all. He was smiling.