SportsMonday Column: Is Michigan on the verge of another Fab Five?

Sunday, January 12, 2020 - 6:46pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

I’ll preface this by saying: I hate writing about recruiting. I hate the speculatory, veiled insinuations. I hate the underlying transactional tomfoolery that is so abundant it’s best left unsaid. Grown adults begging (and paying) teenagers to come play for them. Other grown men and women living and dying with the choices of 17-year-old kids.

Some people know things, but aren’t allowed to say. Others know nothing, but uncork their opinions at every turn. It’s a fraught environment that I prefer to stay away from, if possible.

But in this case, it’s getting pretty hard to ignore what’s going on with the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 2020 class, both because of what it means for next year and what it means about the program.

This is headed toward a Fab Five redux.

On Wednesday, BruinReport — the UCLA 247Sports.com page — reported that guard Josh Christopher, the No. 8 player in the 2020 class, is “just about certain to be going to Michigan.” Later that day, Jerry Meyer, the Director of Basketball Scouting for 247Sports, put in a “crystal ball” prediction for Christopher to Michigan. There is no one more reputable in the industry.

In a class that currently features four-star point guard Zeb Jackson, four-star wing Terrance Williams, five-star forward Isaiah Todd and four-star center Hunter Dickinson, Christopher would be the crown jewel. It wouldn’t take more than a cursory YouTube search to realize why — he’s an athletic freak, with smooth handles and plenty of range. He’d walk onto campus the most electric player in maize and blue since … Chris Webber.

A commitment from the Lakewood, Calif. native would add a boost to a class already among the best in the country. And suddenly, in the first year under Juwan Howard, the Wolverines are on the verge of their best class since Howard himself orchestrated the most famous recruiting class college basketball has ever seen. Almost 30 years later, the remnants of the “Fab Five” are still stitched into the ethos of this program, whether the athletic department wants to acknowledge it or not. 

Under John Beilein, Michigan’s best class was the 2012 class with Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Caris Lavert and Spike Albrecht — which was ranked eighth. Robinson was also Beilein’s highest-ranked single recruit. Both Todd and Christopher would likely end up as “higher-ranked” commits.

It’s worth considering what that means. Michigan is entering the rarified air of programs who can be a player for anyone. In any part of the country. In any year. That doesn’t inherently breed success, of course. In fact, there’s an argument swimming with the sharks isn’t the best way to truly compete in major college basketball. Excluding 2008 (Beilein’s first class) and 2019 (his last), the Wolverines averaged 35.2 in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Beilein led Michigan to the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 12 seasons, won two Big Ten Tournament titles and made two Final Fours. More generally, 68 percent of starters on the previous five national title winners have been upperclassmen. Among that group, only Duke in 2014-15 started a majority freshmen. Experience matters, maybe now more so than ever.

There’s an obvious causal error in these statistics — less talent obviously does not hinder your chance of winning. 

And Howard has been clear from the jump that his intention is to reel in the best talent possible and make it work from there. There are still hurdles in the ever-changing landscape of recruiting that Howard and his staff must clear. Todd has been widely rumored to be considering spending his year before the NBA Draft overseas instead. Until pen meets paper, Christopher is fair game to the schools who want him just as desperately.

But reeling in Todd, Dickinson, Jackson, Williams and Christopher would be a haul few could have envisioned mere months ago. It shows, more than anything, that the cache Howard brought to Michigan matters to these kids. It shows his vision is, if anything, ahead of schedule, and that it didn’t take much on-court success for that to translate on the trail. Pulling that off would set the table for one of the most highly-anticipated Michigan basketball seasons since the early ‘90s. Tickets would fly. Apparel would, too. I’ll never dare write the words “basketball school” in relation to Michigan, other than in jest, but the intrigue would be incomparable. 

Things change, and there’s still a possibility this never comes to fruition. I have no idea what Josh Christopher or Isaiah Todd (or, oh yeah, Greg Brown, a five-star forward from Texas who is set to visit campus on Feb. 8) are thinking. Recruiting is fluid and hectic. But there’s no understating what this means for the direction of the program.

At Big Ten media day, Howard openly pleaded with someone to be the first. To take a leap and a risk. Then, he believed, the dominoes would fall from there.

“I just feel that once one recruit commits, it’s going to be a rapid fire — everyone else will fall in,”  Howard told reporters on Oct. 2, 2019. “Who’s willing to step in the front line and bet on themself first? I bet on myself first when I stepped in the line and I committed to Michigan. Are you willing to bet on yourself?”

Twenty-nine years later, Howard bet on himself once again. The end result might be just as consequential.

Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch or via email at maxmarco@umich.edu.