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Bountifully talented Michigan has three potential 1990 NBA first-rounders in point guard Rumeal Robinson and forwards Terry Mills and Loy Vaught (four, if junior forward Sean Higgins skips his final year). And yet the enigmatic Wolverines take too many risks offensively, nap defensively and occasionally humiliate their coach. "They don't worry about bulletproof vests," says one observer, "because they figure to shoot you first."
On the last day of January, however, they drilled coach Steve Fisher, who entered the season with an untarnished 6-0 record, courtesy of last season's storybook journey to the NCAA title. The Wolverines lost a game on Nov. 25, but Fisher's fairy tale didn't end until the last minute of Purdue's humbling 91-73 victory over Michigan, when the Wolves flat quit in front of the home folks, enabling the Boilermakers to roar by for uncontested dunks. The fans booed, an enraged Fisher called timeout and chewed out the team, and Michigan's waiting game was on—waiting for the NCAA tournament again.
As Fisher says, "If you outdiscipline Michigan, we'll get frustrated and impatient. Against Purdue we were like the rat chasing the cheese. We went straight for the trap and got our heads chopped off." Additional trouble: Higgins, the Wolverines' only explosive long-range shooter, will be out three more weeks with a stress fracture of his left foot. And, says Robinson, "Something's missing. We're playing the game the easy way."
•Michigan State was also in a final four last year, the NIT's, so not surprisingly the Spartans' lineup is as anonymous as it is varied. Ken Redfield? The 6'7" senior forward may be the most versatile defender in the conference. He checks everybody from Indiana forward Eric Anderson to Michigan's Robinson. Kirk Manns? The 6'1" senior has attempted and made more three-pointers than anyone else in Big Ten games this season to become an able supporting scorer for...Steve Smith?
You get the picture. Even with all the future pros in the league, the best could be Smith, the most dynamic unknown player in college. "If only Smith were named Lorenzo Baseline and played in the NCAAs," says Steve Kornacki of the Detroit Free Press. Smith, a 6'6" junior, was averaging 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists at week's end—all team highs—and he dominated State's 64-53 whipping of Purdue, which was then 8-0 in the Big Ten.
These Spartans are coach Jud Heathcote's best team since the 1978-79 Magican State Johnsons won the national championship. But really, how good can they be, having lost to Bowling Green and Illinois-Chicago? That's not the Illini in Chicago, either. The Big Ten's 88-18 record outside the conference—the league's best since 1917-18—should be asterisked for that one alone.
•If Illinois has the best three-man team in the Big Ten (Gill, Bardo and Marcus Liberty) and Michigan the best four, then Minnesota has the best six. That's what every coach in the conference says, at least until the fourth-place Gophers hit the dreaded road and learn once again that the game is played five on five. In two seasons coach Clem Haskins' home-lovin' teams have won exactly two away games in the Big Ten. At Urbana-Champaign last week, guard Melvin Newbern, who had enlivened his Jan. 6 square-off with Gill with 27 points and some choice trash talk, was booed every time he touched the ball. He responded by converting only three of his 13 shots. Guard Kevin Lynch, who had scored 17 points against Illinois in the previous meeting, was 2 for 15. "We shot enough times  for two games," said Haskins, who also must have felt some heat inasmuch as he ripped off his suit jacket and tie in the opening minutes of that defeat, earning two technical fouls.
But on Sunday, back home against Purdue, Haskins was as cool as Richard Coffey, the Gophers' 24-year-old forward and a former paratrooper, must have been years ago when he untangled his leg from a chute line just before hitting the ground on a jump at Fort Benning, Ga. Perched on a stool on the raised floor at Williams Arena, Haskins watched as the Boilermakers erased a 59-49 deficit and took a 72-71 lead after a steal and jam by Jones with 52 seconds left. Newbern came right back with a leaner in the lane that turned out to be the game-winner. Finally, after Jones missed his desperate heave, Scheffler must have been karate-chopped by what seemed like, oh, half the twins in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota still had the only undefeated home record in the conference.
Keady and Haskins are not exactly strangers to each other. When Keady took his first Division I head coaching job, at Western Kentucky in 1978, Haskins—the Hilltoppers' alltime biggest star—was already there as an assistant. The men worked together for two seasons after a rocky beginning, which featured Haskins signing a 6'11" fellow from backwoods Michigan about whom he knew little except his height. "Clem signs the kid, then sits down to watch a pickup game," Keady remembered last week, laughing. "After the first 10 guys get chosen, our kid is still sitting there! Can't play a lick. When Clem got back to campus, he thought I'd kill him."
In 10 years at Purdue, Keady has won three Big Ten championships and 117 Big Ten games with just such players: red-chip guys nobody else wanted. Not that he hasn't tried for the best. Keady's recruiting targets of the past few years have included Anderson (who chose Indiana), Rick Fox (North Carolina), Jerome Harmon (Louisville), Jason Matthews (Pittsburgh), David Booth (DePaul) and Shawn Kemp (Seattle Supersonics, via Kentucky and Trinity Valley Community College). And already the top two high school seniors in Indiana have laughed off the Boilermakers: Guard Damon Bailey has signed with the Hoosiers and 7-foot Eric Montross says he'll choose among Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan. "I don't know why I can't get the great ones," Keady says. "Maybe my scowl on TV turns them off."