Admit it. You wrote off Michigan. Of course, you had every reason to: the Wolverines' coaching change on the eve of fall practice; the foot injury suffered by forward Maceo Baston; the suspect wind of 300-plus-pound center Robert (Tractor) Traylor; the unfulfilled potential of forward Jerod Ward, the 1994 national high school player of the year; the propensity of various Wolverines to get into sport-utility-vehicle rollovers at odd hours of the night. After Michigan's early losses to Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, and the superb seasons turned in by Michigan State and Detroit, the Wolverines looked to be the fifth-best team in the state, no a-maize and all blue.
Well, Pastner urges you to take another look. With Baston back, Michigan now suits up four former high school All-Americas, all of them upperclassmen. And Ward, a senior, is at long last living up to his billing. Several victories—a defeat of then No. 1 Duke on Dec. 13, a 48-point mauling of Indiana on Feb. 22, and a persuasive win over Purdue in the Big Ten title game last Sunday—hint tantalizingly at what the Wolverines are capable of. "I'm sure they want to win for their coach [Brian Ellerbe] to help him get the 'interim' label off," says Pastner. "Last year, for us to give Coach Olson his first national title, it was something special."
On Feb. 28, while most of the country was watching Duke and North Carolina take turns playing lousy halves against one another, Pastner passed for an assist as Arizona thumped then No. 8 Stanford 90-58 with a wire-to-wire floor show of lobs and dunks and fearlessly flushed three-pointers. Yet in the coaches' poll taken after that game, the Wildcats drew only two of 30 first-place votes—even though they hadn't lost since December; they play the same eight-man rotation that won a championship last spring; they've put in more time in the gym and the weight room than a year ago; they have a point guard who's stronger and steadier as a sophomore; they've fulfilled their goal of finally winning a Pac-10 title; and they're holding themselves to such high standards that guard Jason Terry refers to narrow conference victories over Arizona State, Oregon State and Cal as losses.
All of which leads to a parting point that Pastner would like to direct to anyone who doubts his bona fides as a prognosticator. "Two summers ago, before I entered as a freshman, I saw [ Arizona assistant] coach [Jim] Rosborough at the Peach Basket Classic in Augusta, Georgia," he says. "It was July, and I told him, 'We're going to win the national championship this season.' "
With Arizona still intact, hungry and believing that it's being accorded scant respect, let the record reflect: Pastner can think of no better stand-in for last year's Wildcats than this year's.