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Neal Rothschild: A pre-emptive salute to the Fresh Five

Adam Glanzman/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 13, 2013

Legacies are funny. You can’t anoint them until time has passed, but at that point, you can’t enjoy them in the moment.

Solution: Recognize the legacy in the present. This group of Michigan sophomores, known affectionately as the Fresh Five, has just one more year left together, so enjoy it while you can. It will last at most five months more.

The recruiting class of 2012 is extraordinary. An aberration. A remarkable assembly of big-name cachet, underdog status and serendipity.

There’s not a non-descript one among them. Each has carved a persona that fans can relate to. Like the Justice League superheroes. Mitch McGary is the quirky, enthusiastic beast on the pick-and-roll, Glenn Robinson III the quiet, assassin-like freak athlete. Spike Albrecht is the charmed, pocket-sized wonder. Nik Stauskas is cocky and prone to slap the floor or throw up 3-goggles on a regular basis. Caris LeVert is understated, a rail-thin marvel of an athlete. He’s soft-spoken and still sports braces.

This group hasn’t had the cultural impact of the Fab Five, but its effect on the direction of Michigan basketball is comparable. And as far as we know, it won’t cripple the program for the next 15 years. They didn’t need to bring a sense of swaggering hip hop to the basketball scene to leave a profound impact.

The Fresh Five has brought a sense of permanence to Michigan basketball. The Trey Burke era may very well have been a two-year run of success before the program fell back to reality. But McGary, Robinson and Co. have bridged the gap to the future. They’re making sure the Big Ten Championship and Final Four appearance weren’t a fleeting snapshot of Michigan glory.

Where just a year ago, the five were new to campus, learning from the upperclassmen, a year later they’re the team’s leaders. Aside from McGary in the post, they’re all the most experienced at their position. This is their show.

“Last year, I thought it was Trey and Tim’s team,” McGary said. “So I kind of sat back and learned from them. This year, I think I have more of a leadership role and am going to take charge.”

Look anywhere in college basketball, and you won’t find something like this in years — this being a group of freshmen of varying pedigrees all finding success. There was no unheralded recruit in the Fab Five. And no pointing and hollering about John Calipari’s Kentucky teams — that’s predictable. Land five-star recruits like you’re picking apples at the grocery store, and you can expect to have that type of success.

There were a couple big names in Michigan coach John Beilein’s 2012 class by spring of two seasons ago, but he wanted more. There were a couple of potential roster holes to fill.

Michigan looked at a point guard destined for Appalachian State just a few months before he was scheduled to arrive in Boone, N.C. and turned him into a college basketball folk hero. It was the quickest evaluation of a player Beilein can remember. That guy, Spike Albrecht, went on to score 17 points in the National Championship. John Beilein would watch highlights of Albrecht’s prep-school tapes on flights in the middle of the 2012 Big Ten season and realized that this guy could help Michigan.

There’s LeVert, who would be at Ohio University if Illinois hadn’t lost grip of its season in 2012 and lost nine of its last 10 games. Bruce Weber was fired, former Bobcat coach John Groce was hired as the new boss, and LeVert decommitted from Ohio.

Asked about LeVert’s abilities before the season last year, Beilein bursted into a bona fide giggle. He was slated to redshirt the 2012-13 season, but the bird needed to be let out of his cage. Same way this year, with LeVert slotted for a bench role until Beilein realized that the guard needed to be on the floor as much as possible. He’s rewarded coach by leading the team in scoring, pouring in 24 points on 6-for-7 shots from behind the arc in Tuesday’s win over South Carolina State.

The core recruits lived up to their expectations. Robinson was the No. 11 recruit in the country and played like it. He was the most consistent freshman last year, and he was predicted to be top-15 draft pick if he entered the draft.

McGary stumbled his way through the early going of last season, showing high energy, yelling a lot, but not adding a lot to the stat sheet. That changed as he transformed himself into a prized commodity in six NCAA Tournament games. Potential was realized and he was pegged as a top-20 draft selection.

The Wolverines couldn’t ask for more with Stauskas. The native Canadian has proved himself as an elite shooter with a strong game near the rim to boot. I’d venture he’s the best in the country on an uncontested 3-pointer.

There’s also not a disappointing one in the bunch — a rarity for the crapshoot nature of projecting high-schoolers into successful college basketball players.

Each not only earned playing time as a freshman, but important minutes. Each had marquee moments that cemented their place in the program.

“It’s atypical to see freshmen not only earn the minutes that they’ve earned, but to have the type of success that they’ve been able to earn as well,” said assistant coach Bacari Alexander. “For that, you get excited about the future.”

Just like the Fab Five, this group is just as tight.

The summer they came to Ann Arbor, McGary, Robinson and Albrecht were already friends. LeVert and Stauskas blended in seamlessly. Albrecht said that the chemistry between them was palpable before they played their first game. That they all earned important game experience only compounded their bond.

Most likely, Robinson and McGary are gone at the end of the year. That’ll be the end of the Fresh Five. Three will remain, but these five will always be a unit. More and more, it’s looking like LeVert, and possibly Stauskas will join them a few years later.

What the players can do is well known. There’s no guessing on their potential. Their legacy is there to be formed, and Michigan fans would be wise to lean forward and pay close attention.

Rothschild can be reached at nealroth@umich.edu or on Twitter @nrothschild3


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