Wolverines climbing back to elite status

ARLINGTON, Texas — It doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet it also seems like ages that Michigan was the talk of the college basketball world.

The Wolverines’ appearance in the Sweet Sixteen this year harkens back to an era when Michigan dominated the NCAA Tournament.

In a span of five years, 1989-94, Michigan won an NCAA title, appeared in back-to-back  national final games and finished in the Elite Eight another year.

However, Friday’s South Region semifinal game against Kansas is Michigan’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1994. There’s no Fab Five leading Michigan this time, but there is a foundation being built.

“I think there’s been a progression in the last few years and we fought hard to get to this point,” said coach John Beilein, now in his sixth season in Ann Arbor.

This Michigan squad isn’t led by a fabulous class of five freshmen, but it does have a strong backcourt in sophomore point guard Trey Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. The freshman standout is 6-10 Mitch McGary.

This is Michigan’s seventh NCAA tournament trip since last making the Sweet Sixteen, but Beilein’s plan is for the M logo to become a familiar sight at the regional level.

“It’s been a long grind to get back to this thing from ’94,” Beilein said. “But it wasn’t like, OK, we finally did it. The direction of this program has been positive … I think we were moving in that direction, anyhow. This is a little bit of a spike for us, or a catalyst perhaps, for the future.”

Michigan’s players are aware of the historic significance of their return to Sweet Sixteen prominence, but also realize this isn’t the ultimate goal.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been back here,” Burke said. “We’re definitely honored to be here, but we know we have to stay humble. We have more work to do.”

Michigan (28-7) will be facing a Kansas team that has much more NCAA tournament experience. The Jayhawks, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, played in last year’s NCAA final.

“In Auburn Hills (last week) we only had two guys who played significantly in that game that have ever played in an NCAA game. It was all new to them then. And the next step is new to all our guys. Kansas has been there,” Beilein said.

“I didn’t see our kids affected by that. I think we’re affected more by the opponent right now than how long it’s been or where it’s at.”

Michigan’s last appearance in the Sweet Sixteen was also in North Texas, at Dallas’ Reunion Arena which has since been demolished. Friday’s and Sunday’s regional games will be played at cavernous Cowboys Stadium, which will host the Final Four in 2014.

By the 1994 NCAA tournament, the Fab Five had been pared down to four – Chris Webber left after two seasons for the NBA – but Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson remained.

The Wolverines lost to eventual national champion Arkansas, 76-68, in the 1994 Midwest Region final, a game attended by then-President Bill Clinton. It also proved to be the final college game for Rose and Howard.

Prior to that 1994 tournament run, Michigan had made back-to-back appearances in the national title game. After 1994, the Wolverines had never advanced past the second game since – until now.

Two members of the Fab Five were from Texas. King played his high school ball in Plano, a Dallas suburb, and Jackson was from Austin.

“I actually talked to Jimmy King on Monday, he came in and spoke in one of our classes.” said McGary, who has the task of matching up with Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey. The class just happened to include the five freshmen on Michigan’s current roster.

“He said to go out and have fun,” McGary said. “He’s been here before, he knows what to experience from it. It’s the same game of basketball. He just said, ‘Go have fun and play your game.'”

Beilein said the other members of the Fab Five have not reached out to this year’s squad, but they have made occasional contact.

“I’ve seen Jalen on the road, Jimmy King I saw a little bit ago,” Beilein said. “We’ve stayed in contact. That’s one of our missions and one of our goals is to try to reconnect with all the different eras of Michigan basketball, and certainly that era is an important one.”

With the return to the Sweet Sixteen, the current Wolverines are carving out an era of their own.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire