The campus was buzzing. Maize and blue headbands were the latest fad. And the Michigan basketball bandwagon was picking up steam.

Paul Wong
Joe Smith

It was autumn of 1999. A group of five talented freshmen strutted into Crisler Arena, gearing up to take Michigan hoops to new heights.

Silky, smooth freshman Jamal Crawford attracted a cult-like following for his trendy headband, brash confidence and uncanny ability to take over games. And he put the Wolverines on his shoulders. In the first six games, Crawford put on his headband and Superman cape, nailing two game-winning shots.

Sound familiar?

And along with backcourt buddy Kevin Gaines, sharp-shooting guard Gavin Groninger, hometown-hero LaVell Blanchard and little-known enforcer Leland Anderson, the freshman-laden Wolverines shocked the nation with a 12-3 start.

Sound familiar? It should.

This year, a similar group of freshmen have revitalized the once-proud program recently decimated by double-digit losses, off-court issues, a fired coach and endless amounts of embarrassment.

And the reason this year’s version of the “Fab Five” will bring the Wolverines back from the national doghouse and into the penthouse is that they don’t have the selfish and detrimental characteristics that tore apart the 1999 team.

“The biggest difference between my (freshman) class and this class is the cohesiveness,” Groninger said. “People had agendas my year, they were looking to go to the next level, at least a couple of them.

“These guys are a cohesive unit. They embrace their roles. And they love playing together.”

Yes, the 1999 team may have been more talented, more flashy and more successful in the first six games (6-0).

But the Wolverines also had bigger egos, bigger rap sheets and a bigger problem just making it to their sophomore years.

Unlike this year’s team, which is in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten race at 6-1, the 1999 Wolverines dropped eight of their first 11 conference games on their way to a somewhat disappointing 15-14 season – ending in a first-round NIT loss to Notre Dame.

That’s when the avalanche starting building.

Brandon Smith, a would-be captain, transferred, as did Anderson – all engulfed in a mess involving the theft of a student’s Palm Pilot.

And after an erratic, controversial and stress-packed freshman year filled with suspensions and school troubles, Crawford bolted and went pro, leaving Michigan with little to go on. Soon thereafter Gaines was kicked off the team for a DUI.

That’s four players – three likely starters – gone in four months.

Now that’s a mess.

Not just a small spill like this year’s departures of Avery Queen and Dommanic Ingerson.

But just like Daniel Horton didn’t watch the Michigan State game in street clothes (like Crawford did due to alleged NCAA violations), this core of freshman won’t falter.

They’re too mentally tough. They’re too hungry to put Michigan back on the map. They EXPECT to win – and win together.

They’re a T-E-A-M. Not a group of individuals.

And they’re not wearing any headbands. That went out of style a few years ago.

Joe Smith can be reached at josephms@umich.edu

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