COMING OF AGE: FUTURE IS NOW FOR THE FAB FIVE

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Who you calling young? Who you calling freshmen? The team that was supposed to show its immaturity, the team that was supposed to have a squeaky voice, the team that was due to get its comeuppance when it finally faced a “real” challenger in this tournament, just sent that real challenger on a very real summer vacation, it now has three victories under its belt in college basketball’s biggest tournament — supposed to be for big boys only — and tomorrow it will play Ohio State for the right to go to the promised land, the Final Four.

Who you calling young?

“WE’RE GONNA SHOCK THE WORLD!” Juwan Howard screamed, raising his fist as he raced into the locker room after Michigan held off a furious rally by Oklahoma State to advance to the Southeast Regional final, 75-72. “WE’RE GONNA SHOCK THE WORLD!”

I thought that’s what they were doing already.

Final Eight.

Who you calling young?

Here was a game that Michigan could have lost a hundred different ways. Playing without several key starters, saddled with foul trouble, backed into the corner, they could have simply said, “Hey, we did our best. We’ve got three more years. Think of our promise!”

Instead, all they did was promise to be back against the Buckeyes in the regional final. The night wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t classic. But it had a hell of an ending. And it proved something. This was that one game that every Final Four hopeful needs: the one that shows you what you have in your tank.

Here was junior Eric Riley, who sat for much of the year watching the freshmen get all the attention, dropping in one key basket after another and making clutch free throws. Here was senior Freddie Hunter, who Steve Fisher found in the intramural leagues, out there on the floor in the closing seconds. Freddie Hunter? Here was Chris Webber fouled out and Ray Jackson fouled out, and so Jalen Rose basically said, “Hmmm, big men are gone? I guess I take over the team.” And he did, making most of the big buckets, including a three- point bomb with just more than four minutes to go to give Michigan some breathing room.

Here was Jimmy King, in the final seconds, poking a last- chance pass away from the Cowboys, saving the night, then swinging out, pumping a fist, as if he had just proved his manhood.

Who you calling young? This was foul ball

“It felt great!” Riley said, in the pandemonium afterward. And why not? No matter what happens from here on out, nobody can doubt the Wolverines. Not anymore. The Cowboys were the team that was supposed to be everything Temple and East Tennessee State were not. Highly ranked. Patient. Tough. A bona fide college superstar in Byron Houston. Yet the Wolverines disposed of them.

Fab Five.

Final Eight.

Listen. Let’s do something right now: let’s drop the freshmen thing. Invent a new class. Call them Freshmores. Call them Fruniors. Call them Freniors.

But somewhere along the line — it was either the Duke game, or when their first-semester grades came in, I’m not sure — these Wolverines lost the ability to be intimidated. They now seem to enjoy pressure. They seem to thrive on lowered expectations. They are no longer an entertaining entry here, they are real-live breathing threats to the whole ball of wax, the NCAA championship, maybe next year, maybe two years from now, maybe three years from now — but also right now.

This year.

This season.

True, Friday night was an inconsistent game to say the least, particularly in the first half. There were moments when the Wolverines seemed to be walking away with the game and other moments when they simply seemed to be walking. A beautiful block by Webber, which led to a fast break, King to Rose to Webber down the middle, slam! A terrific breakaway play by Rose, who pulled up for a three-pointer and dropped it as if tossing a pebble through a tire. But for every one of those plays, there was one of these: a bad lob, a forced shot, a dropped pass, a foolish foul. Webber picked up his third personal with nearly four minutes left in the half. Jackson got his third less than two minutes later. Half of OSU’s points came off turnovers, yet it was a two-point game at the buzzer. What does that tell you?

Things didn’t get much better in the second half. There were more balls dropped than baskets made. At one point, seven players were in a pile for the ball, and that could have been the theme photo of the evening. The refs were blowing whistles as if they were traffic cops on a Manhattan street corner.

Both teams were flat, and you wonder if the late starting time (10:30 p.m.) had anything to do with it. You play all season, your body adjusting to a certain schedule, and suddenly, you are asked to start playing when you usually finish. Thank television for that. If fans across America shut the game off thinking, “This looks more like floor hockey than basketball,” well, CBS can take a bow. I hope their ratings reflect it.

Just the same, a win is a win.

And this was a major league win. Don’t use the word

We learned something about the Wolverines this night. We learned how they respond to pressure. We learned how they adjust to missing personnel. And we learned that, in their hearts, they are indeed a team. Nobody was cheering harder for the subs than Webber and Jackson.

And now, since the nation has proven to be little contest for these kids, they will now return to their own backyard, Ohio State, a team you could have seen them play in February. Only this time, the winner goes to the Big Party.

Of course, critics will say that the Wolverines are 0-2 this year against the Buckeyes, why should things be different now? Michigan will have come all this way just to go home in a game they could have played in February. Maybe they are right. Then again, maybe they are wrong.

That makes about as much sense as predicting a game before it’s played, doesn’t it?

The truth is, there is no predicting this team, except that they are one big fat ball of talent. People talk about their time, how their time will come. But looking at these Wolverines as they leapt and hugged and yelled after the game Friday — “WE’RE GONNA SHOCK THE WORLD!” — the message in all those young faces was pretty clear: The time is now.

And that’s the last time I use the word young.

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