Michigan basketball: How the scout team has helped the Wolverines to tournament success
SAN ANTONIO — The name Fab Five brings up many memories of Michigan Basketball. But for this Michigan basketball team, who will play for a national title against Villanova on Monday night, the term catchy name has a new meaning.
For graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons, a reserve guard, the Fab Five means a tough practice.
“Those guys bring it to us,” Simmons said. “They are quick and keep up with us.”
Simmons was asked if the Fab Five have won in practice.
“No comment,” he offered -- with a smile.
This Fab Five, Michigan’s scout team, prepares the players in the regular rotation behind closed doors. Junior forward Brent Hibbitts, freshman forward Naji Ozeir, freshman forward C.J. Baird, freshman guard Rico Ozuna-Harrison and freshman guard Luke Wilson are walk-on athletes.
“They are everything to us,” senior Duncan Robinson said. “We learn and play Michigan basketball. They learn to play like every other team on the schedule.”
This nickname for the practice squad -- high praise in Ann Arbor -- comes from Beilein. “Yeah, he’s called us that,” Baird said with a smile. “He shows us a lot of appreciation for our work.”
The Fab Five slowly transformed into Loyola Chicago not long after the final buzzer in Loyola’s regional championship victory over Kansas State on March 24. “Coaches had us ready to go, and for a week we were Loyola,” Baird said. It was convincing to Robinson. “They practiced as Loyola for a week and really looked like them,” he said.
Baird must earn everything on the Michigan basketball team. He was hired as a team manager at the beginning of the season. He tried out and earned a spot on the roster as a walk-on. He has logged just eight minutes this season but has made the most of it. Baird has appeared in four games and shot 2-for-3, including 1-for-2 from 3-point range.
“It’s a lot of work,” Baird said, “but we know we are putting in the work to earn minutes in the future.”
Baird entered the national semifinal victory with 13 seconds to play and blocked a shot with seven seconds to go in Michigan’s 69-57 victory.
Other Fab Five members have played limited minutes this season as well. Ozuna-Harrison recorded a rebound in three minutes against Alabama A&M on December 21. Wilson has played a total of seven minutes in two games. Hibbitts redshirted during his freshman year a year ago but has played a total of 37 minutes this season. Against UC Riverside on November 27, Hibbitts scored five points and had a block and rebound in four minutes.
For the Fab Five, it’s a privilege to have this role.
“I turned down D-1 offers to be here,” Hibbitts said. “No matter what happens, I contributed to a team that is playing for a national championship. I grew up as a Michigan fan, so this is a dream come true.”
Life on the practice squad is different from a player that gets regular playing time. During locker room media availability, they are often ignored by reporters looking for key players.
“After a while, you don’t really notice it,” Hibbitts said.
A reporter’s request for an interview with Baird caught him by surprise. “I honestly didn’t expect to answer any questions, so this is kinda neat,” he said. “It is kind of funny sometimes, to watch one of the (practice squad) guys try to eat a sandwich with a camera in their face, pointed at someone else.”
The impact the practice squad has on this team does not go unappreciated by the starters. “I’m not gonna lie,” Robinson said, “Brent brings it as hard as anyone else in the Big Ten.”
“They have as tough a job as we do,” he said. “They have to emulate someone different almost every practice. They were Loyola all week, and really practiced how Loyola played.”
Sophomore center Jon Teske said they have a tremendous impact on practice.
“You have to give them a lot of credit,” Teske said. “They come in and work hard and give us 100 percent when they practice against us.”
The appreciation goes both ways between the practice squad and the rest of the team.
“It’s great to hear that from coach and to hear those comments from players like Duncan,” Baird said. “It means a lot to us.”
Robinson stressed that this Fab Five has deserved credit for Michigan’s run to the national championship game. “They put in as much work as we do,” he said. “They give everything to make sure we are ready. I don’t want anyone to think they don’t deserve this just as much as we do.”