Six years ago, when blue-chipper Eric Montross, the son of two
Michigan alums, spurned the Maize and Blue for Carolina Blue,
critics had but three words for Wolverine coach Steve Fisher:
You can't recruit. Oh, really? All Fisher has done since then is
snag the top-rated freshman class in the country three times.
This year's crop of newcomers is so talented they've scared off
much of the internal competition. Over the last year three solid
contributors bolted: center Makhtar Ndiaye (who transferred to
North Carolina), forward Olivier St. Jean (to San Jose State)
and guard Bobby Crawford (to Rice). But in Ann Arbor the
transfers barely raised an eyebrow. Why? Because the Wolverines
Among frontcourt players alone, Michigan has four potential NBA
first-round draft picks. One is sophomore Maurice Taylor, a 6'9"
low-post maestro who surprised even himself by winning Big Ten
Freshman of the Year honors. "I just thought I'd get a couple of
minutes here and there," says Taylor, who averaged 12.4 points
and 5.1 rebounds.
On the downside of great expectations was Jerod Ward, the
nation's top-rated recruit two years ago, who arrived with Chris
Webber-like fanfare but produced Ndiaye-like numbers, scoring
6.0 per game. "He came here thinking everything would just fall
into place, that every shot would go in," Fisher says of the
6'9" Ward, who was shelved 20 games into the season after
tearing cartilage in his right knee. "Everything he did appeared
to be forced."
It was what he didn't do that several of his fellow freshman
phenoms noticed. They shaved their heads before the season as an
expression of unity, but Ward chose to keep his locks. Still, if
Ward performs as his high school reputation suggests he can, his
teammates are sure to embrace him, bald or not.
The other two formidable forwards are freshmen Robert (Tractor)
Traylor and Albert White. Traylor's nickname has nothing to do
with being raised by teamsters. He got it because he weighs
roughly the same as a Mack truck. Last season, despite weighing
in at a none-too-svelte 340 pounds, the 6'9" Traylor was named
Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan while playing at
Detroit's Murray-Wright High. By the time school started this
fall, Traylor was down to 310 pounds and said his goal was to
lose 20 more before the Wolverines' opening game, on Nov. 15
against DePaul in the Preseason NIT. "Our fans are gonna love
him," Fisher says. "Just by his appearance, he will draw
attention. Everyone's going to wonder, What can this big fella
He can do a lot--and not just at the training table. In his
senior year at Murray-Wright, Traylor averaged 22.4 points, 15.8
rebounds and four blocked shots per game. "Talk about a space
eater," says recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, who rated Traylor
as the third-best player in the nation. "He's a bigger Corliss
Traylor learned the game from his 6'3 1/2" aunt, Lydia Johnson,
who played at the University of Detroit from 1978 to '80 before
embarking on an 11-year professional career in Europe. Says
Traylor, "She started showing me the tricks of the game when I
was little." In other words, a very long time ago.
The 6'6" White has also endured jokes about his considerable
size. Early in his career at Inkster (Mich.) High, he was dubbed
Fat Albert. Now White is a well-proportioned 225 pounds and has
the quickness to go along with it. "If he gets a step on you,
forget it," says Taylor. "He just explodes."
The backcourt will be manned by some combination of sophomores
Travis Conlan and Willie Mitchell; freshman Louis Bullock,
another top-10 recruit; and point guard Dugan Fife, the only
senior who played much last season. Bullock, who won the
three-point shooting contest at the McDonald's All-Star game in
April, possesses the long-range accuracy that the Wolverines
have missed since Glen Rice left for the NBA six years ago.
So how has Fisher been able to recruit so many stellar classes?
Players point to his style of salesmanship, which would work
better at a Saturn dealership than at a used-car lot. "He didn't
tell me any lies," says Taylor. "He wouldn't promise me a
starting position. He said if I didn't earn it, it would be my
For his part, Fisher says he and his staff refuse to promise
things they know the program can't deliver or to criticize
schools competing for the same recruit. "You don't need to
bad-mouth to make headway," says Fisher. "I know that if other
coaches start talking about our program more than their own,
they're afraid of us."
Fisher says that this has been his approach to recruiting ever
since he started as an assistant coach in 1979 at Western
Michigan. In 1989, just months after taking the Wolverines to
the NCAA title in his first few weeks as head coach, he drew
fervent criticism for his philosophy.
"When we didn't get Montross, people said, 'If you can't get
him, how can you get anyone good?'" says Fisher. "When that gets
said so many times, kids start to believe it."
But Fisher never wavered from his aw-shucks, small-town style.
"He's a down-to-earth kind of person," says Traylor. "He says
what's on his mind."
What's on his mind these days is figuring out a way to beat his
Big Ten opponents. Last season the Wolverines started out a
shaky 6-5 against nonconference competition. That was a prelude
to an 11-7 conference record. Michigan was fortunate just to
land one of the Big Ten's six NCAA bids, but the Wolverines
squandered it, losing to Western Kentucky 82-76 in the first
As if doubts about his recruiting abilities hadn't been annoying
enough, last season--while struggling to mesh his young talent
with seniors and veteran Fab Fivers Ray Jackson and Jimmy
King--Fisher was subjected to question after question about
doling out playing time and bruising fragile egos. This season
he vows not to lose sleep over such issues. "I'm through
worrying about who's going to get enough minutes," says Fisher.
"If we win, that should make everybody happy."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Though just a sophomore, Taylor is a veteran the new Wolverines can look up to. [Maurice Taylor]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Steve Fisher
Career record: 140-59 (6 seasons)
Record at Michigan: 140-59 (6 seasons)
1994-95 record: 17-14 (final ranking: none)
Big Ten record: 11-7 (tied for third)
SF Jerod Ward, 6'9", Soph.
Shot just 36.4% from the field in '94-95
PF *Maurice Taylor, 6'9", Soph.
Wolverines' top returning scorer (12.4 ppg)
C Robert Traylor, 6'9", Fr.
300-pound rookie will be fab when loses flab
SG Willie Mitchell, 6'8", Soph.
Versatile swingman will also play SF
PG *Dugan Fife, 6'3", Sr.
Started 31 games, made 32 field goals
Nov. 15 vs. DePaul
Wolverines were 6-7 outside Big Ten a year ago
Dec. 9 vs. Duke
Attempted eight free throws in 69-59 loss in '94-95
Jan. 23 at Indiana
Outrebounded Hoosiers by 17 in road win last year
Feb. 13 vs. Iowa
Battle for Big Ten title?
Feb. 24 vs. Minnesota
Last season's 22-point loss was Michigan's worst
Until recently, Louis Bullock spent a good deal of time breaking
records and much of the rest selling them. In March, Bullock--a
McDonald's All-America who averaged 25.7 points, 8.7 assists and
six steals as a senior at Laurel (Md.) Baptist High--shattered
the state career high school scoring record. For the next four
months, Bullock toiled at his job at a local record store until
he was asked to replace an injured player at the U.S. Olympic
Festival in Denver. "It caught me a little off guard," recalls
the 6'2" Bullock, who, in fact, is a little off-guard.
Nevertheless, in the festival final he hit a 12-footer with one
second left to give the North an 86-84 win over the East. "I
want the ball with the game on the line," says Bullock, a record
breaker who's shooting to the top of the charts.