DALLAS — The last shot was an air ball by Jalen Rose, which, given the circumstances, was appropriate. The Michigan miracles were gone now, no more time, no more magic, nothing but the weak breeze of a missed jumper. The president of the United States was coming out to high-five the opposing team, and the arena was an Arkansas chorus, roaring for the Wolverines to get off the court. Ray Jackson ducked toward the bench area, trying to exit the fastest way, but a security man stopped him with an epitaph for the Michigan season: You can’t go out the way you came in.

Home too soon. For the first time since arriving at Michigan, the Fabulous Class will watch the Final Four on TV, losing at the river mouth of the promised land to a charged-up Arkansas team, 76-68. Michigan had chances. The Wolverines had shots that were open and a deficit that was only two points late in the game. But too many near misses, too many balls that twirled in and out of the hoop, too many whistles and, ultimately, too many Arkansas sharpshooters. Finally, with Rose’s air ball at the buzzer, a group the nation once celebrated for its youth, energy and fashion statements had lost to an Arkansas team that was younger, more exuberant, and, believe it or not, had longer shorts.

“I can’t tell you how much this hurts,” said Juwan Howard, who was a basketball Samson on Sunday, scoring 30 points in what might be his last college game and doing everything but pulling down the pillars of the arena to win it. “To have a chance to go to three Final Fours, to make history, to be this close, it hurts so bad, man. . . .

“I can barely talk about it.”

He shook his head and stuffed his clothes in a bag. Someone came up to him from an Arkansas radio station and congratulated him on being “the best Arkansas has seen all season.”

Howard, ever polite, said, “Thank you, sir,” and as the man left, he added,
“Good luck to . . . um . . . the Arkansas program the rest of the way.”

The last words caught in his throat.

Home too soon. They beat themselves

Now it’s true, there is no feeling sorry for U-M, not from a basketball perspective. Although outsized by Arkansas, and certainly outrooted by its fans, the Wolverines, in the end, ensured this defeat themselves. They were abysmal on their outside shooting. From Dugan Fife’s 0-for-6 three-point slate, to Jimmy King’s nearly invisible 2-for-7 afternoon, to Jalen Rose, who went 5-for-19. They lost this game in the backcourt, which is ironic, because at the beginning of the season, wasn’t this a team with too many guards?

On Sunday, their leader was the most disappointing. Jalen Rose had a lousy post-season, there is no polite way to say it, and for a guy who has never not played in a championship game, this is the biggest comedown of all. From the first-round game against Pepperdine, Rose’s March Madness tally is 53 shots taken, 16 made. “It was not,” he admitted, “a good tournament for me.”

Nor a good finale. Rose seemed lost much of the afternoon, floating outside on the wing. When he did get involved, his shots would not fall. Forget the old swagger. The ball was in his hands on both chances Michigan had to tie the game late, and both times he came up empty. The first was on a fast break, which, amazingly, he missed off the glass. The second was a three-point attempt with 20 seconds left. He fired, with that quick release, no-form way he has, the shot clanged off the rim, and, essentially, the season ended right there, with President Bill Clinton, a Razorbacks fan, privately cheering the miss.

“I didn’t play well,” said Rose, who finished with 13 points, “but on the other hand, to make the elite eight for a lot of teams is a banner season. They give out elite eight T- shirts, and put it on the front of their media guide. They’re real happy.”

True. But then, this team has never been like others, has it? A legacy to live up to

From the beginning of this season, there was only one question for Michigan: Could the players live up to their legacy, that laughing shadow of the Fab Five that hovered over Crisler Arena?

“Michigan will win the national championship without me,” were the final words Chris Webber said upon leaving Ann Arbor last year. And that, in many ways, became a pole vault bar for the season.

This is unfair. But such is the burden of excellence. Going out in the final eight will sting Howard, Rose, King and Jackson more than you know this morning, when they wake up and there is no practice to attend, no film to watch. Arkansas was good Sunday. But Arkansas was beatable.

“I surely thought that we were going to win when we cut it to two,” Howard said, shaking his head.

Instead, here are the snapshots he will remember: Arkansas going on a 20-1 run in the first half, rousing the crowd into a deafening chorus of “WHOOO .
. . PIG . . . SOOEY!” their inexplicable war chant, and Scotty Thurman, the Arkansas sophomore who scored 20 points, heaving those threes from where, Little Rock? And Jimmy King, fouling out with two minutes left, trudging to the bench, and Howard, himself, in the final minute of his junior season, having to leave the court to remove his shorts, because there was blood on them. He was forced to borrow a pair from another player, and the Arkansas fans let out wolf whistles at his yellow undershorts.

A Fab Five member, removing his shorts?

If that isn’t symbolic of the end, what is? Team may never be the same

“What did the president say when he shook your hand?” someone asked coach Steve Fisher after the game.

“He said he’d enjoyed watching our team play,” Fisher said, looking down,
“not just today, but over the last few years.”

It seemed as if Fisher was thinking the same thing. Who knows what this team will look like when we see it next? Howard? He says he’s coming back. He says he wants his degree, likes college and wants to win a championship before he’s gone. Juwan is a man of his word. But many heads have been turned by NBA scouts and sweet-talking agents. And Howard is good enough to go pro right now.

But know this: If he never plays another game for Michigan, Howard has done it proud, with his attitude, his work habits and, of course, his basketball excellence. Sunday may have been his finest hour. He was a target from the opening tap, and he drew his second foul just 78 seconds into the game. Somehow, he played all the way until the final minute — scored 30, grabbed 13 rebounds, played great defense — without picking up his third. That is maturity. That is excellence.

“Juwan Howard is awesome,” Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said. He is right. Howard’s quick pivot turn, set, shoot, beautiful follow-through, swish!
— it will all be missed if he goes, mostly by Fisher and staff, who had in Juwan that rare blend of star and student.

As for Rose? He almost certainly will not return for his senior year. Many of his basketball friends are already in the NBA, and he gets weekly phone calls from best pal Chris Webber telling him how “you can play in this league, no problem.” Jalen might be better in the pros than he was in college. In some ways, he acted as if high school, college, summer ball, all of it, was just about getting to the pros anyhow.

But as much as Jalen was the most annoying and unnerving of the Fabs, he was also the force behind their personality. Make no mistake. The Wolverines would not have done what they did without him.

As for the rest, they will return, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, who are still hatching into the stars they seemed born to be. And the two foreign freshmen, Makhtar Ndiaye and Olivier Saint-Jean, should improve greatly. Sophomore Dugan Fife will only get better. The new recruits already bode well.

So weep not for the future of this team, but only for the past. The fascinating experiment of the Greatest Class Ever Recruited may end with a new label, the Greatest Class Never To Win Anything.

But winning is only what comes at the final buzzer of the final game. The true story of this group is what came before those final buzzers, from the coming-of-age in its first game against Duke, to the historic day all five freshmen started against Notre Dame, to the trash talk, to the uniforms, to the “Shock the World” slogan, to the upset of heavily favored Kentucky, to the Greek tragedy of Chris Webber and his time-out against North Carolina, to having-then-blowing the 1994 Big Ten title, and finally, to this. A Sunday with the president, in which the opposition looked more like the Fab Five than Michigan.

You can’t go out the way you came in.

But then, who does?

“What happens now?” someone asked Jason Bossard, the sole senior on this team.

“What happens now?” he said. “I try and look for an apartment in New York. Get on with life.”

He sighed and glanced at his famous teammates. “I do know this. For the rest of my life, people are going to ask me questions about what it was like to play with these guys.”

He half-laughed and left the locker room, keeping the answer, for the moment, to himself.

Home too soon.

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