Not since UCLA won a national title in 1963 with a 6-foot-5 center has college basketball seen a national power quite like the Running Runts of Michigan.
Not only are the Wolverines small, but they also are skinny. In an era where most teams are modeled after the muscular, bruising Indiana clubs of the last two years, Michigan appears more suited for a high school league than for battling the giants of today's game.
Then why is Michigan coach Johnny Orr smiling?
"Because we're so darn quick and determined," he answers, "we can zip by people. When we play our game, I know we are capable of winning a national title."
Orr was smiling last year too, when the Wolverines snuck up on everyone and leaped into the final of the NCAA Tournament faster than you could say, "Who's Michigan?"
Now the element of surprise has evaporated faster than a Rickey Greenled fast break. Opponents know that Michigan will probably be the quickest team they'll face all year and will toss up what seem to be unconventional shots and make enough of them to win most games.
"Everyone is gunning for us every time out," said Orr. "People go crazy. It's not like it used to be, when they'd look at us and say, 'Who is this bunch.'"
It sometimes is hard to take Michigan seriously. Here is a team that was the preseason favorite in some camps to win the national title starting a 6-3 forward who looks 5-11, a 6-7 center so skinny he could double as a pencil and a 6-2 guard who appears to be on a hunger strike.
"We don't look that overpowering," agreed Phil Hubbard, Mr. Pencil. "I know I get tired of having those big centers push me around. But our game is not muscle, it's speed."
And the Wolverines do have speed. Green, who isn't on a hunger strike even if he does eat breakfast some days at 2 p.m., moves the ball down the court faster than anyone in the college game. Hubbard makes-up for his lack of physique with kangaroo moves around the basket. Tom Staton can survive as a 6-3 forward only because the 6-7 players guarding him aren't used to a foe who runs so well.
Orr can go eight deep -- until he gets to 6-9 backup center Tom Bergen --Running Runts. They all are outstanding at what could be called the game of transition: changing from defense to offense with such suddenness that opponents can't adjust.
When Michigan is in the flow of its power, with all engines going full blast and even its seemingly wild play under some sort of control, Orr thinks the Wolverines are practically unbeatable. The only problem is, the running machine has misfired more than he would like this season.
"We've been inconsistent," he said, "and we hardly ever look very pretty.Someone said we are like an old fashioned team. We mess around, spurt for a few minutes, get ahead and win."
Orr would much prefer the onesided laughers his club is capable of producing, like Saturday's 89-70 embarrassment of Big 10 challenger Minnesota. When they come that easy he can spend more time ripping off the one-liners that make him one of the game's funniest coaches.
His jokes have been coming less frequently, however, ever since last spring, when he failed to sign a largesized freshman (most notably 6-10 Ricky Brown, who went to Mississippi State) so he could move Hubbard to forward and strengthen his rebounding game.
Since then, he's discovered that winning isn't everything it should be. The more victories this year's team accumulates, the more criticism he receives ("I get six letters a day, all telling me how to coach") and the more he yearns for those days when only his wife and the players' mothers cared about the Wolverines' fortunes.
"I can see why some coaches, in a fit of temper, could quit even when they are winning," Orr said. "Man, this isn't as much fun as you might think. No one knew about us before. Now we are under a microscope."
Before, Crisler Arena, built right after Cazzie Russell graduated, hardly had any sellouts. Now it's sold out for every league game. Before, Michigan hardly was on television. Now, one-third of its games are televised. Such popularity doesn't allow room for letups or even the three losses Michigan has suffered.
"I think people expected us to go undefeated," said Green, "and when you lose, they say, "What happened?" It's tough for anyone to be that good, but I think this team is better than last year's. Experience is the key."
The Wolverines do have gobs of experience, beginning with the four starters who returned from last year, plus the top four reserves, all of whom lettered in 1975-76. Yet the one major character missing from this season's cast, forward Wayman Britt, still hasn't been sufficiently replaced.
"He was a leader, a steadying influence," said Orr "You could put him on a Scott May and not worry about him. And he was always consistent."
Trying to replace Britt, who was only 6-3, are Staton and 6-8 Joel Thompson, both of whom have taken turns at starting. Staton gives Michigan more speed, Thompson more muscle, but neither has taken much pressure off Hubbard underneath. And 6-6 John Robinson, the other forward, has been as spotty this season as he was steady and heady last year.
Toss in Michigan's sometimes atrocious foul shooting and its stand-around tendencies on offense and no wonder Orr is turning bald. He'd also be losing if he didn't have Hubbard, Green and their combined 40 points a game.
Green is Michigan's catalyst, Hubbard its strength. Green's fast-break forays bring life to the Wolverines but it is Hubbard's agile assaults on the boards and his soft jumpers that keep them breathing.
As a forward, Hubbard probably would be nearly unstoppable. As a center, he is handicapped on defense because of his size deficiences but a headache to opponents on offense because of his range.
But too many times this season, Michigan has been all Green and Hubbard and not enough of everyone else.
"The players got so concerned," said Hubbard, "that we had some team meetings this month. We wanted to get our heads straightened out before the tournament.
"I think we're on the right path now. Like coach says, when we run like we can, who's fast enough to stop us?"