Vols receive No.9 seed; will play Michigan in NCAA tournament
The Fab Five are back in the national sports consciousness just in time for March Madness.
Thanks to ESPN’s documentary, Michigan fans — and the rest of us college hoops fans, too — can relive the Wolverines’ glory days of 20 years ago, the 1991 Fab Five recruiting class’s high-flying act on the court and their contribution to basketball culture.
But Michigan doesn’t have to be content with just living in the past.
Sunday evening in Ann Arbor, coach John Beilein walked into Crisler Arena to a standing ovation from a gathering of fans.
Then there was another cheer when the Wolverines popped up in the NCAA tournament bracket with a No. 8 seed.
The pairing of Michigan and Tennessee in an 8-9 game offers a historical juxtaposition.
From 1985-96 Michigan missed only one Big Dance. It won a national title in 1989, then the Fab Five played and lost in the title game in 1992 and 1993.
Michigan’s glory era was Tennessee’s mediocrity era. From 1984-97, the Vols showed up in the tournament only once, a quick exit in 1989.
Tennessee returned to the bracket in 1998, about the time Michigan was headed into decline.
The Vols’ celebration Sunday night was more subdued than the one in Ann Arbor. There were pats on the back for coach Bruce Pearl, but no standing ovation.
It was merely business as usual, a historic sixth consecutive bid, all on Pearl’s watch.
There have been two Sweet 16s (2007, 2008) and an Elite Eight (2010). When it comes to March Madness, this is Tennessee’s glory era.
In the current context, cast Tennessee as the tournament blue-blood and Michigan as the up-and-comer.
After the program’s 10-year absence from the bracket, Beilein is taking the Wolverines back for the second time in three years.
In his fourth season at Ann Arbor, he has coaxed 20 wins from a team that features three freshmen and two sophomores in its rotation. There are no seniors.
One of the freshmen is Tim Hardaway Jr., son of the five-time NBA All-Star of the same name.
In his 33rd year as a head coach, the 58-year-old Beilein has one of the better résumés in the profession.
He has won 617 games and is one of only seven coaches to take four different schools to the tournament. Canisius was the first. Richmond was next, upsetting third-seed South Carolina in 1998. Then came West Virginia and Michigan.
“John is a brilliant tactician,’’ Pearl said. “If there’s such a thing as a man’s man, he’s a coaches’ coach.
“He is a guy that everybody recognizes can outcoach you with his and with yours.’’
With his, Beilein took Kansas into overtime and beat Oakland 69-51 this year. That’s the Oakland that beat Pearl’s Vols in Knoxville.
Michigan stumbled to a 1-6 start in the Big Ten. Then something clicked, especially Beilein’s trust in sophomore point guard Darius Morris. The Wolverines went 8-3 the rest of the regular season.
On paper, Michigan is a challenging match-up for Tennessee. For one thing, the Wolverines don’t commit many turnovers.
For another, they run a constant-motion offense that requires defensive diligence, a trait that has been in short supply lately for the Vols.
“It won’t take him very long,’’ said Pearl, “to figure out what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are and how to go at them.’’
By definition, a pairing in an 8-9 game means neither program is especially Fab this year. But it also means it could be a Fab game.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.