LAWRENCE — San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is on the phone, trying to recall the last time he faced off against a Kansas team. For a moment, the memory escapes him, but then it comes back.
It was more than 20 years ago, Dec. 30, 1992, in a gym in Hawaii. In those days, Fisher was at Michigan, coaching an iconic group of underclassmen that featured five sophomore starters, including future first-round picks Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. They were, quite simply, the Fab Five, a group that had led Michigan to the NCAA title game as freshmen during the previous season.
As Fisher remembered his one and only matchup with Kansas, it dawned on him. If that class would have arrived on campus 20 years later, that KU-Michigan game in the final of the Rainbow Classic tournament would have probably never happened. Most of those players would have left for the NBA after their freshman season.
“If they were in today’s world, they would have been like everybody else,” Fisher says. “They would have been one-and-done.”
More than two decades after Fisher’s Michigan teams helped change the college game, he’ll make his first trip to Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday as No. 21 San Diego State faces No. 16 Kansas, another team that’s relying on some highly touted freshmen.
In some ways, Fisher’s Michigan teams helped usher in a new era for college basketball, a time when the expectations and exposure for freshmen began to change. Fisher’s Fab Five wore their long and baggy shorts, and their black socks, and they exploded the notion that freshman-dominated teams couldn’t win big.
“That group changed college basketball more than any group may have ever done it,” KU coach Bill Self says. “They changed how you wear your uniform to your swagger, to the whole thing.”
Two decades later, in the era of one-and-done hype and social media, the cult of the freshman has continued to evolve. All across America, from Kentucky to Tobacco Road to Allen Fieldhouse, this has been the season of freshman infatuation.
Kentucky’s recruiting class, which featured six McDonald’s All-Americans, was compared to the Fab Five. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins was on magazine covers before his first game. And more and more, the college game is viewed through an NBA prism of constantly changing draft projections.
“Given all the hype in today’s world,” Fisher says, “the recruiting services and the buzz on all them. Fans have unrealistic expectations. And coaches have to deal with all that.”
For Self, that’s meant dealing with a tough nonconference schedule that included three losses in a four-game stretch in November and December. In reality, Self says, he always expected to emerge from nonconference play with a couple of losses. He even tried to warn fans back at Kansas’ Late Night in the Phog in early October, saying: “I know expectations are high, but as a fan, you’ll drive yourself nuts if you’re not somewhat patient.”
Still, the early growing pains served as a telling reminder: Sometimes freshmen just aren’t ready to win in November and December. The Jayhawks needed time to grow on offense, and their defense is still a work in progress. But they can win their fourth straight game on Sunday before starting Big 12 play this week.
For Fisher, who is in his 15th season at San Diego State, the game should serve as a solid measuring stick for his program. The Aztecs have played in four straight NCAA Tournaments, and they’ve reached a level where they can now get a program such as Kansas to schedule a home-and-home series. Looking back, Fisher says, he’s not sure if his Michigan teams really changed the way people thought about college freshmen. But over the years, that perception has certainly solidified.
After playing Kansas in Hawaii during that 1992-93 season, the Wolverines reached the NCAA title game for the second straight year, losing to North Carolina. But some facts, Fisher says, can become distorted over time. For instance: That Fab Five team reached the NCAA championship game in 1992 while starting five freshmen … but it also lost nine games and finished just 11-7 in the Big Ten. Even the Fab Five had growing pains.
“Usually when you have all young kids starting, you’re not real good,” Fisher says. “We were real good. And I think that heightened everyone’s expectations.”