Teammates nearly coming to blows--it was a sight for sore eyes.
Really, it was. Throughout the 1995-96 season, Michigan coach
Steve Fisher had pleaded for some fire from his players.
Unfortunately, the sparks didn't fly until a Crisler Arena
pickup game in September in which center Robert (Tractor)
Traylor barreled into guard Brandun Hughes and sent him flying
about 15 feet. On Traylor's next trip down the floor, Hughes
shoved the 6'8", 300-pound sophomore semi out-of-bounds. The gym
fell silent. Thinking that punches would be thrown, 6'9",
250-pound forward Maurice Taylor stepped between the two players.
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1996 issue
Hughes laughs as he recalls that tense moment. "Everyone was so
worried, but that's just me and Robert," he says. "We're both
emotional, fiery guys, but we leave it on the court. We're
roommates, which means we're married; we have to be able to
sleep with each other at night."
Though stocked with the top recruiting classes from 1994 and
'95, the Wolverines were listless and often rudderless during
the season and fizzled in the first round of the NCAA
tournament, losing to Texas 80-76. "When we struggled," Fisher
says, "there was no one to pull us out of the doldrums." Enter
Hughes, a junior college transfer, and Traylor, who played 22
games last season before breaking his right arm in a car
accident. They may well provide what was missing for much of
last season: spirited leadership.
The buzz around Ann Arbor is that Hughes is the second coming of
Rickey Green, the juco transfer who led Michigan to the national
championship game in 1976. Like Green, Hughes is quick, can
score and comes from Illinois. What's more, he's a lifelong fan
of the maize and blue. "He was probably the only person in
Peoria rooting for Michigan to beat Illinois in the Final Four
in 1989," Fisher says.
Hughes was recruited by Illinois and DePaul, but he never heard
from Michigan. Then, because of poor grades, he attended Barton
County (Kans.) Community College. "I really thought the odds
were against me, because it seemed that Michigan hadn't brought
in a junior college player in 20 years," says Hughes. (There
has, in fact, been one since Green: the forgettable Chip Armer,
in '91-92.) After Hughes averaged 28.2 points per game last
year, however, Fisher came knocking--and enjoyed the eager
reception he got. "I like it when we don't have to genuflect in
front of a recruit," Fisher says.
"Brandun is so exciting that sometimes I just get caught up
watching him play," says sophomore Louis Bullock, who, like
Hughes, will be used at both point and shooting guard. "I can't
wait to play with him. He gets me so many open looks because he
loves to penetrate." Which is another thing the Wolverines
lacked last year--an instinctive playmaker who could break down
the defense and free up Bullock.
The other spark plug on the team, Traylor, has a ceaseless drive
on the court and a lunch-pail work ethic reminiscent of former
Wolverine Juwan Howard's. Last year, though, the Tractor spent
too much time feeding from the lunch pail and wound up hauling
an oversized load; he topped out at 325 pounds. But through
strenuous conditioning over the summer, he has trimmed his body
fat by half. "Every time he takes his shirt off I tell him,
'Ooooh, you look so gooood,'" says Hughes, laughing.
Michigan's Big Ten prospects also look so gooood because the
Wolverines' team MVP returns for the first time in four years:
Taylor, who was their top scorer (14.0 points per game) and
rebounder (7.0). He admits that the NBA was on his mind much too
often last season. "I got caught up in the press," says Taylor,
the Big Ten freshman of the year in '94-95. "I thought I had to
play like an NBA player every night, which hurt me and the
team." This season he will fill in at both forward
spots--without looking too far forward. "When an agent calls, I
tell them to call Coach Fish," he says.
The versatile Taylor leads one of the most dominant front lines
in the nation. At center, wiry junior Maceo Baston was the
team's second-best rebounder (6.6) and leading shot blocker
(1.3), preserving three victories by swatting away potential
winning or tying shots with seconds to play. Rounding out the
frontcourt is sophomore Albert White, a barrel-chested small
forward who came on strong late in the season, and
injury-plagued junior Jerod Ward, the nation's top recruit three
For the Wolverines to win their first Big Ten title
in--gasp!--11 years, they will need consistent play from the
backcourt. Fisher plans to use Hughes, Bullock and junior
defensive whiz Travis Conlan interchangeably. Bullock, the best
pure shooter on the team, is also the most superstitious. "I
don't let anyone touch my shooting hand before a game," says
Bullock, who averaged 13.5 points per game. "If someone reaches
out to shake my hand, I just give them my left hand. I've had
good luck doing this since I was 12."
Loaded with so much talent and experience--Michigan has nearly
90% of both its scoring and rebounding back--the Wolverines may
need only a little luck and a little fire this season to win
that elusive conference title. They may get both from the kid
who says that just being on the campus in Ann Arbor gives him
chills. "I never thought this would ever come true," says
Hughes. And if he keeps his teammates on their toes, he could
make the grandest dreams of all the Wolverines come true this
Coach: Steve Fisher
Career record: 160-71 (seven seasons)
Record at Michigan: 160-71 (seven seasons)
1995-96 record: 20-12 (final ranking: none)
Big Ten record: 10-8 (tied for fifth)
PG *Travis Conlan, 6'5", Jr.
Dished out team-leading 4.8 assists per game
SG *Louis Bullock, 6'3", Soph.
84.5% free throw shooting was school record
SF *Albert White, 6'6", Soph.
Sank just 22.4% of his three-pointers
PF *Maurice Taylor, 6'9", Jr.
Favorite for Big Ten player of the year
C *Maceo Baston, 6'9", Jr.
Career 67.9% shooter from the floor
Dec. 8 at Duke
Last season's win broke six-game slump vs. Devils
Dec. 21 vs. Arizona
Only victory against Wildcats came 39 years ago
Jan. 25 at Michigan State
Wolverines swept rivals--by 51 total points--in '95-96
Jan. 28 at Penn State
Ended Nittany Lions' winning streak at 13 last season
Feb. 26 vs. Minnesota
Michigan is 25-1 against Gophers at Crisler
PLAYER TO WATCH
He was everybody's All-America in 1994, the Naismith player of
the year at Clinton (Mich.) High. He was an athletic 6'9"
swingman who could fire sweetly from the perimeter or bang with
the big boys inside. But since coming to Ann Arbor, Jerod Ward
hasn't had a chance to live up to his own legend. He tore
cartilage in his right knee as a freshman and sat out nine
games. Then last December he tore the ACL in his left knee and
missed the rest of the season. "It's been hard," says coach
Steve Fisher. "Jerod has gone through the depths of despair to
bitterness to acceptance that life is what you make of it. He's
much more mature now." Ward worked hard in the off-season, and
his knees seem to be fine. Says Fisher, "The next two years,
he'll have the success that everyone thought he would."