INDIANAPOLIS — The last time Michigan played Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, it was 1993, and the Final Four was stacked almost beyond belief. North Carolina. Kansas. A tremendous Kentucky team led by junior Jamal Mashburn.
But the real stars — the rock stars — were from Ann Arbor.
Michigan beat Kentucky in that national semifinal, and basketball fans from all over rejoiced because it would mean one more game for the Fab Five. Back then, nothing was more entertaining than the circus that was the most hyped team in the history of the college game.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson. Chances are, you knew those five names without needing to be reminded of any of them. Chances are, you can remember them like it was yesterday.
Chances are, you’re old, maybe even ancient.
Most of us are, compared to the guys who play for Michigan and Kentucky now. Nine of the 10 players who’ll start in the Midwest Regional final Sunday weren’t even born when Webber called for that infamous timeout in the 1993 title game against North Carolina, ending the Fab Five’s two-year run before Webber left for the NBA.
The Wolverines, one of the youngest teams in the country and the second-youngest team still playing, start two sophomores and two freshmen.
The Wildcats, as has been written a million times, start five freshmen — their own brand of Fab-ness, if you will. The group has been widely hailed as the best recruiting class of all time, though you won’t hear many folks in Ann Arbor espousing that sentiment. Regardless, if these Wildcats make it to the Final Four, they’ll be linked with the original Fab Five forever.
“We are trying to do something special. We are trying. Our goals have not changed from the beginning of the season, but we can’t worry about comparing ourselves to the Fab Five or anything like that,” said the most ballyhooed of Kentucky’s freshmen, forward Julius Randle.
“We are focused on us, and our focus is on Michigan and not on comparing ourselves to history. We are trying to make our own history.”
That’s probably the wise approach because Kentucky wants to win the whole thing — something the Fab Five thought they would do once, twice, as many times as they wanted to, but couldn’t quite pull off.
There were plenty of people who enjoyed it when Michigan lost the championship games in 1992 and ’93. The Wolverines were brash, cocky and — with their black socks and trendsetting extra-long shorts — flamboyant. Not everyone loves that sort of thing.
But the Fab Five got much more love from fans around the country than this Kentucky team gets. Outside of Big Blue Nation, Kentucky is the program fans love to hate. John Calipari is, in the opinions of some, a disreputable coach. His program represents, some would say, one-and-done excess.
What happens sometimes, though, is that real people get in the way of such generalizations and stereotypes. In this case, Kentucky’s freshmen — Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson. They aren’t brash. If they’re cocky, it isn’t at all excessive. Only their athleticism could be described as flamboyant.
And they’ve had a tough season — from No. 1 in the preseason to the outskirts of the Top 25 and, potentially, all the way back to No. 1.
“It’s really tough. It’s not for everybody,” Young said.
“It was kind of hard for us in the beginning because we had different roles and really didn’t know what we were supposed to do with them, and playing with each other was kind of hard. As the season went on, we got used to each other.”
If they win another game, they’ll have to get used to more comparisons to an iconic team many of them are simply too young to know much, or care, about.
“We don’t really pay attention to it,” Young said.
Like most aging rock stars, it seems the Fab Five are doomed to irrelevance.