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March 16, 2012The light at the end of the tunnel is rapidly approaching for a U-M basketball program that spent much of the past two decades in utter disarray.
Coming off of their first Big Ten regular season crown since 1986, the Wolverines are going dancing for the third time in four years, and their fourth seed in the NCAA tournament is the school's highest since 1994.
If that's not enough to prove that Michigan has safely turned the corner, it has locked up a potential top-10 class for 2013 and shows no signs of slowing down on the recruiting trail.
In the minds of many, the 2013 class, comprised of five-star power forward Mitch McGary, four-star small forward Glenn Robinson III and four-star guard Nik Stauskas, is the program's best recruiting haul since the Fab Five.
Not so fast.
In 1994, head coach Steve Fisher reeled in the nation's top collection of recruits for the second time in five seasons; a group of five-highly touted prep prospects that drew predictable comparisons to the brash, trendsetting quintet that once united in Maize and Blue with the sole goal of shocking the world.
Although not quite as lauded as U-M's once-in-a-lifetime 1991 haul, expectations were colossal for the group known as the Fab Five II.
Like the Fab Five, the 1994 class had a local flavor. Two hailed from the Motor City - Maurice Taylor, a hardnosed 6-9 power forward out of Henry Ford, and Willie Mitchell, a lanky 6-8 wing player that led Pershing to 92 wins and two consecutive state titles in his prep career. Travis Conlan, a fundamentally sound point guard from St. Clair Shores, rounded out the trio of native Michiganders.
U-M utilized what at the time was a Lone Star pipeline, adding Texas High School Player of the Year Maceo Baston, a 6-9 forward from H. Grady Spruce High in Dallas that could jump out of any gym. Four years earlier Fisher snagged Jimmy King and Ray Jackson from the same state.
But the gem of the class was seized from a state that the Wolverines typically don't mine for talent - Mississippi. Jerod Ward was widely considered the most talented high school prospect in the country, drawing comparisons to former NBA superstar Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. The 6-9 forward averaged 29.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and three blocks a game for Clinton High School, earning the 1994 Naismith High School Basketball Player of the Year award. On his 18th birthday, he chose the Wolverines over powerhouses like UCLA, Kentucky, Arkansas and in-state favorite Ole Miss.
Here's how they fared:
While a Wolverine, Conlan averaged only 4.1 points and 3.8 assists but was a reliable four-year floor general, starting 77 games and becoming one of only 12 multiple-year captains in the history of the program. He is currently in his second year as U-M's director of basketball operations.
Taylor lived up to the billing from the get-go, earning Big Ten Freshman of the year honors after averaging 12.4 points and 5.1 rebounds. He was drafted 14th in the 1997 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers and spent over a decade in the NBA.
Unhappy with playing time after starting only 10 games in his first two campaigns, Mitchell transferred to UAB following the 1996 season. Hampered by a knee injury in his final year as a Wolverine, he could never get on track and added only 5.5 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during his abbreviated stint in Ann Arbor.
Baston earned a reputation as a high flier and stifling defender, and contributed 10.7 points and 6.6 rebounds during his Michigan career. He was drafted in the second round of the 1998 Draft by the Chicago Bulls, and has played most of his professional ball in Europe; although he has seen action in parts of four different NBA seasons, never playing in more than 47 games.
Ward came far from reaching his perceived potential, but still managed to grow into a reliable player for the Maize and Blue. He was certainly no Chris Webber, and was plagued by knee injuries throughout his career, but started all 34 games as a senior, averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds. Once the most-coveted recruit in the nation, he went undrafted and played professionally in Europe.
U-M struggled to a 37-26 record and twice was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round during the two years the team played together, although Conlan, Baston and Ward were key members of the 1998 squad that captured the inaugural Big Ten Tournament title.
Only Taylor provided a double-digit scoring average and more than 20 minutes per night as a freshman, and the group rarely, if ever, all saw the court at the same time. Mitchell started only four games, Ward and Baston each started three, and Conlan never began the game on the court during his rookie year.
By comparison, in the two seasons in which Michigan trotted out the complete Fab Five, the Maize and Blue posted a 56-14 record, reached the national title game twice, and built an infamous legacy for better and for worst.
Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jimmy King all averaged at least 28 minutes on the court, and Rose, Webber and Howard averaged more than 10 points a game.
It is clear that this group did not possess the talent or look-at-me-now bravado of their predecessors, even so far as Ward requesting his pair of the ultra-baggy shorts the Fab Five made famous to be trimmed.
Viewed as a surefire lock to sustain U-M's national success and prominence, they will forever be a sidebar in one of the most devastating scandals in collegiate basketball history more so than anything they did, or didn't do, on the court.
Both recruiting classes played a major role in the degradation of the previously proud Michigan basketball program. Webber and Taylor were proven to have received improper benefits from U-M booster Ed Martin, and both Taylor and Mitchell were involved in the infamous rollover accident on M-14 that became the catalyst to the Ed Martin scandal.
In addition to results, one major difference between the 1991 and 1994 U-M recruiting classes remains. Despite their transgressions, the Fab Five will live on forever in highlight-reels and documentaries. Meanwhile, the second-coming will continue to fade into obscurity, lost in the shadows.