COLLEGE BASKETBALL: 1993-94 SEASON PREVIEW : Once They Were Fab : Without Webber, Michigan's Remaining Four Might Not Equal a Final Four Anymore

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michigan center Juwan Howard points to the 1992 NCAA Finalist banner that hangs from the black steel rafters of Crisler Arena. Like a bored tour guide who has seen the sights one too many times, he couldn't care less.

"They're going to hang up another one that says, 1993 NCAA Finalist , but that's not good enough," Howard said. "You look over to the left side of that banner and all you see is, 1986 Big Ten Championship . That's something they haven't won in years. Then you look up and there's, 1989 NCAA Championship ."

Only when Howard stares at the lone Wolverine national title flag does his voice lose its monotone. The memories do it to him every time.

"I felt there should have been two banners up there hanging beside it, but, you know, we came up short. Two national championships. There should be two hanging up right beside it."

Instead, there is nothing but darkness and rafter space. As it turns out, the Wolverines' plans to "shock the world," as they once put it, have come only half true.

"We've got another year," Howard said. "We've got another chance at it. All we've got to do is win that big game."

It's a nice thought, but wishful thinking can only go so far. After all, Michigan's biggest loss wasn't inflicted last season by North Carolina in the Final Four championship game, or a year earlier when Duke beat the Wolverines for the national title. In truth, it occurred shortly before the most recent NBA draft, when the Michigan players received phone calls.

Wolverine forward Ray Jackson was home in Austin, Tex., when his phone rang early one morning. Jackson ignored the noise and let the answering machine do its job. Later, he stumbled out of bed and checked the message.

Remembers Jackson: "It said, 'I'm just calling to let you know I'm going pro, man.' "

And that was that. A day later, Chris Webber, the most fabulous of Michigan's Fab Five, told a nation what his teammates already knew, that he was leaving school for the NBA.

Jackson had had a feeling Webber would go. So did Michigan Coach Steve Fisher. Who didn't? After all, you didn't need to be NBA super-scout Marty Blake to know that Webber was a top-three pick. And it doesn't take an accounting firm to figure out that Webber's new $74.4-million contract with the Golden State Warriors is worth slightly more than room and board at Michigan.

Still, Webber didn't leave without first asking his teammates for advice. But what could they say, that beating Boston University would be more fun than beating the Boston Celtics? That a visit to West Lafayette, Ind., in the dead of winter is better than an evening spent playing inside Madison Square Garden?

Michigan never had a chance.

"You really don't want it to be over," Jackson said. "I didn't want him to leave, but he had to do what's best for Chris. He went No. 1 (in the draft), so he couldn't do any better than that. It was time."

And thus ends an era--if two seasons qualify as an era--of wild expectations and the most analyzed starting lineup in years . . . decades . . . millennia. Webber, Howard, Jackson, guards Jalen Rose and Jimmy King--the Fab Five, now reduced by one.

Friday against Georgia Tech in the Tip-Off Classic, Michigan begins life after Webber.

Withdrawal signs already are evident.

In practices, especially the early ones, Jackson has found himself lobbing passes to the inside, only to see them bounce off hands less forgiving than Webber's. And no longer is a drive down the lane such an intimidating thought. With the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Webber gone from the middle, layups no longer are attempted at your own risk.

Webber's absence has created a trickle-down effect. The Wolverines are the consensus preseason choice to win the Big Ten title, but it isn't like the old days, when they were considered a cut above nearly every team in the league.

"I was shellshocked when we were picked No. 1 (in the Big Ten)," Fisher said.

Nor is Michigan automatically found atop the national rankings. With Webber gone, the Wolverines begin the season as the No. 5 team. A year ago, they checked in at No. 1.

The change is not altogether unwelcome. Lower rankings mean lower expectations and fewer spotlights pointed the Wolverines' way.

For the moment, Chapel Hill, N.C., has replaced Ann Arbor as the center of the college basketball universe.

"This time we haven't had near the media blitz we've had the last two years," Fisher said. "Michigan being Michigan, you get a lot of national attention, regardless. It was so unbelievably constant the last two years that unless you were right here, you couldn't really appreciate what it was like. I've been here for 11 years now, so I know the difference.

"But now we're back to some semblance of normalcy from the standpoint of people wanting a piece of your time," he said. "And that's welcome relief, to be honest. But if we could guarantee Final Fours with all that media attention, I'd take it every day."

He also would have preferred that Webber had stuck around for his junior season. But two years of Webber was better than none.

"I'd rather be doing it with him and have everybody nit-picking," Fisher said.

Even with Webber in a Golden State uniform, the Fab Four could weave its way through a regional bracket. As for a Final Four appearance, stranger things have happened--like when the five freshmen reached the championship game in 1992.

Consider: Howard is poised to become one of the five best pivot players in the country. Jackson had few peers in the NCAA tournament a year ago. King is a deadly outside shooter and a defensive star. Rose is Rose, which is to say, inconsistently brilliant.

None of this is lost on Fisher, who understands better than anyone else that the Wolverines' strengths outnumber their weaknesses.

He describes Howard as "a coach's delight," and "the people's choice" in Ann Arbor. He says that Jackson was the most improved player on the team when fall workouts began. He marvels at King's effortless play. And he predicts that Rose, whose performances in practice have improved "significantly" since Webber's departure, will become a dependable perimeter shooter.

"I do feel that if we can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, we will be a team that will be pretty good," Fisher said.

Fisher would feel a lot better, though, if he had a fifth starter. For now it is guard Dugan Fife, but that isn't written in ink. Fife didn't score a basket in Big Ten play last season.

Fisher also could use another big man in the rotation. Oliver Saint-Jean, a freshman forward from, uh, Versailles, France, is a possibility, but a nagging knee injury has put those plans on hold.

Until then, Fisher will have to tinker. He has only nine scholarship players, so expect Rose to spend time at every position, including center. And the days of simply feeding the ball inside, as was the case with Webber, probably are finished. Howard said he spent much of his summer working on the dribble drive, which means he doesn't anticipate a lot of free space in the low post.

"I think it's going to be an exciting year because we do have some things that aren't predictable," Fisher said.

Which is exactly why Howard might get his wish for a championship banner. Or why Jackson is counting the minutes until Friday's game.

"Teams still have to look out for us, that's the bottom line," Jackson said. "We're still here. We haven't gone anywhere."

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