Chris Webber recently told me all things being equal, he’d choose to stay in college now, instead of turning pro. Not for college rules or its lack of paychecks. But for certain nights, nights on which the noise rattles your eardrums and you can’t wait to hug your teammates and the game — not the contracts or the endorsements or the NBA glory — but the game is what it’s all about. Tuesday night, with the clock down to its final seconds and Michigan about to do what Michigan players dream about doing, Juwan Howard came off the court to thunderous applause, found Webber at the end of the bench, and locked him in a bear hug, street clothes against uniform, sweat against aftershave, college against pro.

“We gotta stay focused! Game’s not done yet!” Howard yelled, even as he bounced his old teammate. “Gotta stay focused!”

“Come on!” Webber said, laughing. “Will you just relax and enjoy it?”

Tuesday was the kind of night Webber misses most. College hoop hysteria. Relax and enjoy it. What was the score on that board? 91-67? Isn’t that a blowout? Why, yes. It is. Against Indiana?

Why, yes. It is.

And never mind that the Hoosiers were missing Brian Evans and Todd Lindeman

— and even the Michigan coaches admitted this was hardly Indiana at its best. Never mind. All anyone inside Crisler Arena cared about was the color of the uniforms and the score. As long as the latter was positive, and the former included Indiana red and Bobby Knight’s sweater, well, that was enough. This was war.

Victory would be in-your-face.

“I am so sick of hearing about Indiana being the smarter team, the better-coached team, the more disciplined team,” said Dugan Fife, whose four steals and five assists were straight out of the Indiana manual — and helped Michigan to where it is this morning, alone atop the Big Ten with an 8-2 record. “This was really important to me.”

He was not alone. The enthusiasm is catching

Consider that Tuesday marked the somewhat-controversial return of Jimmy King and Ray Jackson to the lineup, after the BeerGate incident that attracted so much attention. Tuesday was also the return of Webber, his first visit to Crisler since he jumped to the NBA. It might also have been the last time Jalen Rose and Howard played Indiana — if they choose to follow Webber this year — and they hadn’t beaten the Hoosiers since freshman season.

Important? Is that a strong enough word? This was the jealous kid who sits all year watching the prissy kid give all the right answers — and who finally gets his chance to show him up. No wonder the Wolverines came out of the gate as focused as surgeons. Howard hit two quick baskets, keeping his hands locked in that follow-through motion. Jackson got his full body into his first jumper, the start of “the best night he’s had all season,” said coach Steve Fisher. Olivier Saint- Jean, le Fab Frosh, grabbed rebounds and followed a fast break with a tip-in and then got free on a steal for a big old American jam. Bannnng!

As he came downcourt, the crowd went berserk, and Saint- Jean, who used to watch the Fab Five back in Paris, began yelling and smiling and yelling some more. I might say it was trash talk, but I’m not sure if it was English or French.

“I know, I know, I saw it,” Fisher said, looking down, grinning. “I would rather he was looking for his man on defense.”

What can you do? The fever was contagious. Besides, Tuesday was that rare night on which the Fabulous Michigan enthusiasm was not paid for in mistakes. The fact is, at halftime, U-M had made nearly twice the baskets of Indiana, while committing three turnovers to the Hoosiers’ 11.

And by the end of the game, Michigan had — you better sit down for this one — outshot Indiana at the free-throw line, making 16 of its 21 attempts to Indiana’s 14 of 21.

Makes you wonder about the whistles down in Bloomington, doesn’t it? Victory makes ’em look smart

“It was great that we beat ’em,” said Jackson, who scored 13 points, “but even greater that we’re in first place in the Big Ten, and we control our own destiny.”

Smart. Keep your eyes on the prize. For all their accomplishments, the Fab Five class has yet to win a Big Ten crown, and Fisher has not done so since coming to Michigan.

“I think they can do it,” Webber said, moving through the hallway, hearing the screams of his fans in the tunnel. He stopped. He leaned against a wall.
“Man,” he said suddenly, “you don’t know how hard this was to watch. A couple times I wanted to run out there. I feel like missing (Warriors) practice tomorrow and just coming here.”

Nights like Tuesday will do that to you. So will old friends, old smiles, and the old swagger. This was a night on which energy met excellence, the giant was smitten, and everybody forgot about his problems for a few minutes. It was one night in a difficult week in a long season in an impossible sport. But it was, as Rose said, “our chance to be the smart team for once.”

“What was the smartest thing you did?” he was asked.

“Win,” he said.

And they say you don’t learn anything at college.

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