SAME OLD WOLVERINES: SCARE THEIR OPPONENT, THEN SCARE US

DALLAS — There are nights when they drive you crazy with their excess, and nights where you want to slap them for their arrogance. And then there are nights when you really believe anything is possible with these Michigan kids. When you watch them dangled over the alligator pit, losing two starters to early foul trouble, facing a no-win situation against a darling underdog, and what do they do? They not only win, they put on a most unexpected clinic.

Stop rubbing your eyes. It was real. The team with the reputation for glitz and glamour actually punched out a sweaty, blue-collar, defense-soaked victory to get back to the elite eight of the country and, oh yes, continue to confound the millions who have tried to figure out just what it is that makes this team tick.

“Keep guessing,” they seem to say. “And we’ll keep winning,”

Eight ’em up.

Oh sure, they pushed it to the limit, allowing Maryland to get within six in the final minute, missing five straight free throws, making everyone test the limits of his or her underarm deodorant.

But it wouldn’t be them if they didn’t, would it?

Forget the final seconds. Here, in this 78-71 victory over Maryland, was a performance that nobody would have predicted. With home a suddenly unfriendly place to Texas natives Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — four fouls just after halftime — and with Juwan Howard fouling out, the Wolverines were forced to turn to other starters, subs and the clock.

They got the most out of all of them.

Here was Dugan Fife, coming into his own in this tournament. He had been virtually invisible during the first two games, but he made up for it Friday, playing the heady, gritty basketball that you look for from a point guard. At one juncture, he had as many rebounds as Juwan Howard. He made beautiful bounce passes inside to the big guy, was there for steals, pokes and fast breaks, and played the first 31 minutes without a turnover.

Oh yeah. He scored 12 points.

This was a night when the Michigan Foreign Legion, a.k.a. Mahktar Ndiaye and Olivier Saint-Jean, got their baptism of fire, spending more time in the game than the starters they replaced, King and Jackson.

And here was Saint-Jean responding with steals and blocks and even the occasional basket. Here was Ndiaye, blocking one shot, coming back and blocking another. Never mind that the stadium announcer couldn’t pronounce their names right, and gave about five different versions over the course of the night. By the end, there was almost nobody left in the arena anyhow.

Except the people wearing maize-and-blue, and sweating profusely.

Are these guys for real?

“Keep up your psychoanalysis,” they seem to say, “and we’ll keep winning.”

Eight ’em up.

Same old, same old

“We knew what it took to win,” said Juwan Howard, who exited the game with his fifth foul with just under three minutes to go. “But then we seemed to lose our concentration. I don’t why that happened. We have to cut that out.”

Tell me about it, Juwan. You just never know what to expect with this team. The first half was the best and worst that Michigan can be. The Wolverines played spectacular defense, double teaming, helping, sliding over like glass doors, intimidating the young Terrapins into nine turnovers and holding the much heralded Joe Smith to no baskets, and only two free throws. (He finished with only 12 points on 3-for-8 shooting.) It takes great discipline to play this kind of defense, and they had it to spare.

And yet, on offense, it wasn’t there. Too many balls thrown away. Too many simple things botched. Jackson picked up his habitual two quick fouls and sat down. Jalen Rose acted as if first-half free throws don’t count, so why bother? He missed three out of four. Despite holding Maryland to meager 32 percent shooting, U-M went into halftime with just a seven- point lead.

And even in the second half, when the place emptied out and journalists already were writing their game stories, Michigan allowed the lead to dwindle perilously close to the flame, and then Howard fouled out, and it was a scramble.

It’s funny. I did an interview Friday morning with a Dallas radio station, and the other guest was a writer from Washington, D.C. The host asked him to assess the coming game. “I don’t see how Maryland can win,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan blew them out by 20.”

I immediately refuted his remarks, saying Michigan could easily lose, just look at what the Wolverines had done all year. It was only later I realized that it is almost an instinctual reaction with these Wolverines to assume the worst. You figure, before each tap, this is the night the sky will fall.

Strange, because the record shows that the Fab Five/Fab Four has lost just two tournament games in two years, both championship nights, while winning 13. Those are numbers that should spin your head.

So why is it that the first piece of body language when someone asks a Michigan fan about this team is a head shake, then a sigh, then a shrug, then a bit lip?

Since when did success become some . . . unnerving?

Watch it, Clinton

Not that the players care. The Wolverines will take every heart-stopping, valve-emptying victory, as long as that’s the result, a victory. It is incredible to watch them in the locker room after some of these close games, acting as if it were just another night at the gym, and their pick-up team had won, 10-9.

Maybe that is their secret.

It is worth noting that Steve Fisher’s teams have now played in the last three NCAA tournaments, and outlasted 62 teams the first year, 62 teams the second, and 56 teams this year. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

And don’t underestimate the value of this game for Ndiaye, Saint-Jean and Fife. In each of the two previous tournament runs, there was night when the secondary players had to prove their mettle. So this bodes well.

And now, onto Sunday, and Arkansas, a team boosted by the most powerful man in the country, the president. After beating a Cinderella team with their bench and defense, could they possibly have any idea what they’ll do against the No. 1-seeded Razorbacks.

“They have the president on their side?” Jalen Rose said before this game.
“Well, we’ll just have to send the president back to the White House unhappy then.”

Can you believe these guys?

Eight ’em up.

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