ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Ray Jackson was a sophomore the last time Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the country.
Now, two decades after the Fab Five went to back-to-back Final Fours, Jackson is ready to tell any remaining doubters how impressed he is with this season’s Wolverines.
“Everybody has been calling me and asking if we’re for real, and I keep saying, `Yes, we’re for real,”’ said Jackson, who lives in Texas now. “It brings back good memories.”
Michigan has the nation’s attention now, after moving to the top of the AP poll Monday for the first time since Jackson and his other Fab Five teammates were ranked there during the 1992-93 season. There’s no telling how long the Wolverines will remain at No. 1 — a brutal Big Ten schedule could knock them off that perch at any moment. But this rise is a source of obvious pride.
“The different ways the program has grown, with a lot of support from a lot of people — from the regents to the president, to our athletic directors,” said coach John Beilein, who took over in 2007. “This is what happens, when you really do the right things to prepare your team to put them in this position, and then you have to have a lot of luck.”
Michigan did catch a bad break Sunday night, when forward Jordan Morgan sprained his right ankle in a win at Illinois. His status for Wednesday night’s game against Northwestern is uncertain.
The Big Ten offers few chances for a breather. After hosting Northwestern, the Wolverines (19-1) will play at No. 3 Indiana next weekend. Then they’ll host Ohio State next week — a rematch against the only team to beat them so far.
Still, Michigan has been turning heads all season — to the point that even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo offered his grudging respect Monday.
“If I had a vote, I’d have to vote them No. 1 even though it’s your rival,” Izzo said. “Who wants to do that? But I also have respect for what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done.”
The Fab Five lost in the national title game in 1992 and 1993 before Chris Webber left early to go to the NBA, but banners from those seasons were removed from Michigan’s home arena. A federal investigation revealed that a booster gave Webber and three non-Fab Five players more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes, and the NCAA forced the school to dissociate from them until 2013.
Jackson says he hasn’t heard from Webber in years.
“It would be great to get those banners back up to restore some of the tradition,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what his thinking is about the situation. I know a lot of people keep asking.”
The dissociation with Webber can’t end until May 8, so for the rest of this season, most of the focus will be on Beilein and the current players. Trey Burke decided to stay for his sophomore year instead of going to the NBA, and he’s developed into perhaps the top point guard in the country. Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and freshman Glenn Robinson III are other standouts for what has turned out to be a smart, unselfish team.
“We are excited about the ranking, don’t get me wrong,” Hardaway said. “It’s great for our fan base, and it’s great for the University of Michigan. We just want to do a great job of just staying in the moment — just do what we can to get better as a team each and every day.”
That’s Beilein’s main message for his players. As the attention grows and the games become bigger, the Wolverines are hoping little will change about the way they’re playing.
“We have to put it in perspective and say to them, `How did we get here?”’ Beilein said. “`Did we get here because we were obsessed with being No. 1, or did we just get here because we worked hard every day? Well if that worked so far, then let’s just keep doing exactly what we were doing.”’
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