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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT : A Bruin Alumnus Offers Not-So-Fab Opinion of Five

March 21, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

TUCSON — This could be payback day. A lot of people don't know or don't remember that Michigan was the second choice of young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back when he was in high school and using a different signature. UCLA wooed and won him instead, so perhaps these Midwesterners have been biding their time for a quarter of a century so that vengeance can be theirs.

Today, they play. The sharpshooters from Westwood have enjoyed themselves tremendously during previous dances with Wolverines, eliminating them from the NCAA tournaments of 1965 and 1975. Michigan might feel as though it owes UCLA one, and perhaps today is the day, here in the be gone-by-sundown town of Tucson, that it comes to collect.

It is daunting enough that the Bruins must overcome long odds without Michigan's players also smarting from a zinger by Bill Walton, the UCLA goaltender of yesteryear, who recently went public with an astonishingly blunt assessment of the Wolverines as "one of the most overrated and underachieving teams of all time."

"Of all time?" Michigan sophomore Chris Webber asked in wonderment.

That's what the man said.

"Of all time ?"

Uncertain why an outfit with a 27-4 record, overpopulated with underclassmen, direct from a national second-place finish would deserve such a shot to the heart, the Wolverines on the whole have chosen to do what Walton himself once took such pains to do--let their basketball do the talking.

Yet Michigan's Webber has committed to memory Walton's opinion of the Fab Five: "They're not as good as they think they are." Which is why Webber took a minute here Saturday to recite a litany of other digs, daggers and nasties directed at the Michigan squad, before restraining himself from responding in kind with anything, well, sophomoric.

"Let's just play and let's just see," Webber said.

All right, let's just. It could well be that Walton is not merely candid but correct, that Michigan is far less dominant than it should be and far more vulnerable. Some who already are giving UCLA two chances to win today's game--none and none--appear not to care one whit that, on visits to Duke, for example, UCLA was indeed defeated, 78-67, but Michigan likewise was defeated, 79-68.

So, Michigan should terrify UCLA?

"Hey, it's no secret that these guys have talent," Bruin forward Ed O'Bannon said. "But does that mean we're supposed to believe there's no way they can be beaten? No way?"

No way.

"It's a question of heart," O'Bannon said.

Besides, if Iowa can do it, UCLA can. Iowa beat Michigan by eight points. And OK, so maybe this UCLA squad pales in comparison to the ones that suited up Walton, or the erstwhile Lew Alcindor, or even the one that had Tracy Murray, that would still have Tracy Murray had he stuck around. None of this negates the fact that UCLA this season defeated Florida State, which has since scooted along to the Sweet 16.

"Survive and Advance." That's the ticket. That's the message that UCLA point guard Tyus Edney has been wearing on his T-shirt. Edney knows his play could make or break the Bruins in this one. He knows how much larger those Michigan guards are.

"I'm excited, not nervous," Edney said. "Some times it's the smaller guards who give you a harder time than the big ones do. They're not so easy to go around. My edge is quickness. I've got to use that."

This is good strategy. Forget X's. Forget O's. Think positive.

Yes, you do have to play Michigan. "It's a formidable task," Coach Jim Harrick said, "but somebody's got to do it."

Yes, you do face a team that has made a name for itself. "But one thing we can't do," O'Bannon said, "is get caught up in that 'Fab Five' stuff."

Yes, you know Michigan has big plans. "They got a great draw in this region, especially with Arizona getting bumped off," UCLA senior Mitchell Butler said. "So, Michigan's sights must be set a lot farther down the road. Michigan must be expecting to go a long way beyond us."

And what must UCLA be to beat Michigan?

Butler had a great answer.

"Hungry and feisty," he said.

If they are, this could turn out to be some day. One of UCLA basketball's great days, in fact. You know. Of all time.

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