It’s very rare for a team to make the Final Four with five freshmen in the playing rotation, and at most schools, that would be an outstanding recruiting class.
At Michigan, though, any group of five freshmen is automatically held up to the highest possible standard — the Fab Five. That’s the group that, as a starting lineup, went to the NCAA championship game as freshmen and again as sophomores.
So let’s get this taken care of right off the bat — this isn’t Fab Five II. This is a very talented group that has provided three starters, two possible NBA players and helped boost the Wolverines to a chance at a national title. It’s a group that would be the envy of every coach outside of John Calipari.
It is also a group that fits perfectly into John Beilein’s system. The Wolverines have a superstar point guard in sophomore Trey Burke and another quality guard in junior Tim Hardaway, Jr., so they don’t need five starters. They need players who can fill roles, and that’s what they have gotten.
Caris LeVert is the least known of the group, which isn’t a surprise. He started the year planning to redshirt and was only activated when it became obvious that Matt Vogrich wasn’t cutting it as a backup shooter.
He has played 10 minutes a game, mostly as Hardaway’s backup, and has struggled with his shot, but he is capable of making a play at the least expected time. In Sunday’s win over Florida, LeVert ran down a fast break and made a spectacular block of what the Gators thought would be an easy layup.
During the tournament, though, LeVert has lost some of his playing time to fellow freshman Spike Albrecht. Albrecht has the unenviable role of backing up Burke, but he’s gotten some time as a second ball handler against pressure defenses.
He’s been a spark plug in the last three games, playing a total of 40 minutes and putting up 13 points with three steals, three rebounds and three assists. One of those steals, off a Florida inbound pass, helped kill the Gators’ last serious rally.
The freshman star against the Gators, though, was Canadian sharpshooter Nik Stauskas. For the first three months of the season, he looked like a future All-American, but he hit the freshman wall hard in February. Suddenly, the 3-point shot that had become a thing of legend on YouTube was lost and Stauskas was struggling badly to play defense in the physical Big Ten.
Sunday, though, the shot was back. With the Gators focusing their defense on Burke and Mitch McGary, Stauskas found himself unguarded on the left baseline. Burke found him early, and the first 3-pointer was perfect. So was the second. And the third.
By game’s end, he had matched a career high with 22 points, including a perfect 6-for-6 on 3-pointers. The Florida players all talked about what a difference he made, although they couldn’t pronounce his name. So, fittingly, they just called him “the shooter.”
Freshman number four is the one with the big name and the big reputation. Like Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III has spent his whole career being compared to his dad, so being mentioned in the same breath as the Fab Five isn’t going to bother him.
Robinson hit the freshman wall about the same time as Stauskas, but he also has recovered for the tournament. After three double-digit scoring games, he only had six points against Florida, but he held Gators star Erik Murphy to 0-for-11 shooting — a performance that did as much as anything to allow Michigan’s blazing start.
And then we come to the final freshman — the one who has grabbed the nation’s attention after spending most of the season as an energy player off the bench. Mitch McGary was a Crisler Center favorite because of his willingness to sacrifice his health (and that of everyone near the court) to go after every loose ball in the building. He also became legendary for his animated cheering on the bench.
Beilein, though, moved him into the starting lineup when the Big Dance started, and McGary came through in ways no one could have expected. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in Michigan’s four wins, and dominated the matchups with Kansas’ Jeff Withey and Florida’s Patric Young in Dallas.
Suddenly, draft experts are talking about him as a possible first-round pick in June — something that would have been unthinkable two weeks ago.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard don’t have to worry about their legacy — these freshmen aren’t about to damage the Fab Five’s status as history’s greatest recruiting class.
Of course, that group never won a national championship. Thanks to McGary, Robinson, Stauskas, Albrecht and LeVert, Michigan has a chance this weekend to do just that.