COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT : WEST REGIONAL : Michigan Defensive in Face of Questions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They zipped through the NCAA tournament last year with fresh legs and fresh faces--five freshmen taking Michigan to within 40 minutes of the national championship, five kids seemingly having the time of their lives.

They were everybody's darlings, stars of ESPN, CNN and seven "Tank McNamara" comic strips.

"A novelty act," was how forward Chris Webber put it Saturday during a news conference that made it very clear that the novelty had worn off.

Yes, the Michigan Fab Five has reached the West Regional final, where the Wolverines will face Temple today in the Kingdome, but this is not the same joyful band that took college basketball by storm a year ago.

The region's No. 1-seeded team, Michigan (29-4) has looked sloppy and lackadaisical during its last two games, against UCLA and George Washington, barely scraping by against teams it was expected to dominate. Against 12th-seeded George Washington in Friday's regional semifinals, the Wolverines squandered a 15-2 lead, missed 14 free throws and committed 20 turnovers.

At Saturday's news conference, the Fab Five sat exactly as it had under similar circumstances a year ago. But the questions were not about the thrill of being there. The questions were about intensity and expectations. The answers were defensive.

"You've probably only seen one great half of Michigan basketball (during the last two games), when we came back against UCLA," Webber said. "We know we haven't played good basketball. You're acting like we go out there and try to look like we're not Michigan. That's not the case.

"I watched the tape of the game (Friday) night. I saw we didn't look like Michigan. We looked like a bunch of junior-high kids compared to the old Michigan, the way the five of us are used to playing."

For Webber, all the Fab Five talk has become grating.

"We've been put on a pedestal so much that we aren't respected any more--I mean as individuals," he said. "When you're looked at as a novelty act or a traveling sideshow, it sort of gets to you.

"You read in the papers about how all the basketball gurus say we're the most underachieving team they've ever seen. You're not just talking about Chris Webber, the basketball player. You're talking about Chris Webber, the person, Chris Webber's character, like my parents raised a bunch of underachievers. When my father sees some of you (reporters), don't expect a 'Hi, how's it going?' handshake."

Said Michigan Coach Steve Fisher: "We have never been quite as pure white or as pitch black as we have been portrayed. We're like everybody else. We're somewhere in between in terms of how we play, how we act, everything about us. We've tried hard--tried hard all year. Twenty-nine wins, I think, would attest to that."

Temple (20-12) won't necessarily be the cure for the Wolverines.

The seventh-seeded Owls have been tested by one of the nation's toughest schedules, and their matchup zone defense will be primed to keep Michigan from working the ball inside to Webber and center Juwan Howard.

Of the Owls, who were ousted by Michigan during the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, Webber said: "There are two teams in the tournament I never want to play, Princeton and Temple."

Plus, the Owls are loose. Saturday, Temple players were laughing as Coach John Chaney teased them about their shortcomings, their knowing smirks a vivid contrast to the glum expressions of the Michigan players.

"The worm turns," Chaney said of the Wolverines. "Last year, that group of players was the most heralded in the nation. Every youngster you recruit wants to go where the Fab Five goes. I would suspect that there is a great deal of pressure on that team. It's somewhat of an entitlement for that team: 'You should be in the Final Four.'

"We played a strong schedule. We won some games, lost some games. But that team, they're at the point now where they're aiming shots. Rather than just shooting, they are actually aiming. They get a 20-point lead, and they're laughing and giggling and not aiming shots. But if you stay around their throats, they start aiming shots."

Whatever the case, Michigan is still alive, still aiming to recapture the magic of last year.

"I don't want to say we've played every game totally bad," Webber said, "because we haven't. If we had, we wouldn't still be sitting here. But, at the same time, to win two or three more games, we're going to have to pick it up."

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