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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENTS : MIDWEST REGIONAL : Michigan's Players Have Seen All of This Before

March 27, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Arkansas is younger.

Arkansas is bigger.

Arkansas is deeper.

Arkansas has longer shorts that come down to players' calves, or in some cases, ankles.

The President of the United States is coming to see Arkansas.

Arkansas is a big favorite. If you don't believe it, ask them.

"When we're executing well and our guys are playing on all cylinders," Coach Nolan Richardson said Saturday, "we may be the toughest team in the country.

"We can do so many things and I think we have so many weapons and different weapons that will hurt you, as opposed to teams that have certain people who have to carry that ballclub. The team is totally different."

For the first time, Michigan isn't even the biggest trash-talker in its regional.

All the Wolverines have are the remaining four caretakers of a famous, if not universally beloved, tradition, the young men who all but invented attitude in college basketball. Chris Webber, who made it the Fab Five, mathematically and otherwise, is already in the NBA. Jalen Rose is expected to leave after the season and Juwan Howard might.

A Michigan assistant coach once remarked they were college basketball's MTV, hated by parents, loved by their kids. The Wolverines had a genius for inviting criticism and then rising above it.

A year ago, they were seven-point underdogs to Kentucky in the Final Four semifinals at New Orleans. The Wildcats had beaten tournament opponents by an average of 31 points. The Michigan kids were being attacked on several fronts.

Bill Walton called them "one of the most overrated and underachieving teams of all time," a fair comment with Webber snapping off the occasional behind-the-back outlet pass.

USA Today's Curry Kirkpatrick said they were "smug, haughty, paranoid, too good to block out or cut or play hard for 40 minutes. Fortunately--for the Fabs' own good as well as the tournament--Kentucky's terrorizing press, sturdy discipline, work ethic, sheer numbers plus all those threes should blow Michigan back to reality."

Michigan won in overtime.

"That's the kind of situation we're going in now," Rose said. "Arkansas is a great team and they're the No. 1 team in the country right now. A lot of people don't give us a chance, but that doesn't put points on the board.

"Our strengths, I think we know how to win. We've been in tight situations. We've been through this before. Experience is something you can't coach. You can talk about all the Xs and Os you want, but if you haven't been there before, it's tough. This is just the talk leading up to the game. Every game needs a plot. Everything has to have a story, to entice the fans or sell a few papers."

Actually, the Michigan players are as personable as they are high-spirited. If they extol the benefits of "experience," how much can be left?

They are frequently asked if they will have failed if they don't win a championship, but younger opponents, such as Arkansas' 6-foot-11 freshman center, Darnell Robinson, constantly pay homage to their accomplishments and their style.

"It seems kind of fun," said Rose, the leader of the pack. "Seems like just yesterday we were freshmen."

"I think those are the guys we play for. We play for the guys who wanted to come to college and make a difference. I think now when freshmen come in college, they're not just satisfied to sit on the bench. They want to make an immediate impact. We showed that could happen."

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