Leaders of the New School
A look back at the most impactful team in college basketball history.
In the semifinals, Michigan was a seven-point underdog to Jamal Mashburn’s powerful Kentucky team, which had dismantled its previous tourney opponents by an average of 31 points, thanks to Rick Pitino’s brutal end-to-end pressure. The Fab Five took the Cats into OT, their fourth extra period in eight games, before winning 81-78. It was not only their best-played game in months, but also one of the most memorable Tournament battles in recent years.
Despite all the criticism, pressure and close calls, they’d made it back to their second title game, where they would face UNC. In the first half, the Fab Five were again flat and out of sync, down six at the break. Then Fisher aggressively challenged them in the locker room and Webber lifted the team en route to 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. The team got in trouble when Rose and King lost their shooting touches down the stretch, but Webber seemed fated to be the hero when he grabbed a missed UNC free throw with 20 seconds left and looked upcourt. After getting away with an uncalled traveling violation, he was headed for the history books—for all the wrong reasons.
Carolina led by two. With Rose covered, CWebb headed to the other end of the court, picked up his dribble and panicked. With Pelinka wide open and desperately waving his arms behind the three-point line across court and King staking out position underneath the basket, Webber called timeout. Michigan had none left. A T was whistled, UNC hit the shots and went on to win 77-71.
To a man, the Michigan players will tell you they never considered the possibility of losing that game. So they had to skip doubt and leap directly to heartbreak. Again. Before long, Webber would announce he was leaving school for the NBA, and that was that for the Fab Five. They finished their two-year run at 56-14, including losses in the two games that mattered most.
Might Walton have been right? Were they just a bunch of overhyped losers? If you ever ask Vitale that question, be ready to duck.
“It is absolutely absurd for people to criticize the Fab Five as underachievers or failures because they didn’t win a title,” Vitale says. “College ball is not the NBA. It’s one game and there’s a lot of luck involved. Many great teams don’t win titles, but we unfortunately live in a world where if you don’t cut down the nets, you didn’t achieve anything. That’s a ridiculous perspective.”
And no team ever proved that point more than the Fab Five.