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The question is inevitable, if unfair. How long will Michigan's "Fab Five" stay together before one or more decides to go professional?

"That's a question that's up in the air," said Juwan Howard, the first of the five freshmen to sign with Michigan a year ago. "I don't know what's going to happen down the road. But not one of us is leaving until we get a national championship ring. I'll tell you that for sure."A win over Cincinnati on Saturday and one more Monday night could settle that issue quickly.

"I'm sure none of us is going to go anywhere next year, but starting next year the question is going to be asked of a lot of players," said Ray Jackson, whose nine regular season starts were the fewest among the freshmen.

"I think a lot of us would hate to see this end so soon. I think we want to stay together and make history."

Still, the rumors have already begun. Coach Steve Fisher said someone gave him a newspaper clipping that had Chris Webber, perhaps the best of the "Fab Five," transferring next season.

"That's ridiculous," Fisher said. "He's not going anywhere."

Jalen Rose, Webber's best friend on and off the court, was offended the subject even came up.

"The question will be asked throughout our careers, and you've got to answer it the best you can," he said. "It's too soon for those kinds of things to be said. It just seems that no matter how good the situation, somebody is always trying to find something bad to put into it."

Jimmy King, too, chafed at the question.

"We're five freshmen, we're five times one unit. But you know, we're individuals. If anyone has decided to leave, we would wish them the best of luck."

First-year assistant coach Perry Watson, who coached Rose at Detroit Southwestern last year and has been a mentor to Webber for six years, doesn't see any defections in the near future because he doesn't see any selfishness.

"They're special kids in a lot of ways, not just with their basketball ability," Watson said. "They care about each other. Being 18 years of age, they're out here getting all the minutes. But you put a microphone in their face and they're talking about how the veterans are helping them and improving them."

Watson said he thinks his close relationship with Rose and Webber might provide some extra incentive for Jackson, Howard and King.

"I think they're also special in the fact that they're not coming in with their hands out, looking for the minute I can leave. I think maybe Jalen and Chris set that tone because our relationship goes back so far."

Said Howard: "If a guy wants to go, I'm going to try my best to make him stay, but if he doesn't listen to me, then, `Hey, I love you. I'm always going to be there for you. Do what's best for you.' That's how I feel."

Fisher brushed off the question, until he thought longer about it.

"Believe me, I'm not going to worry about that," he said, pausing. "Until it comes up. Then I'll worry about it."

He thought again about Webber, who started in 27 regular season games this season and has enhanced his best-in-the-nation schoolboy reputation.

"Maybe Webber won't stay. If he's that good, maybe we'll tell him to go," Fisher said, pausing again. "Naw. I'll probably be begging him to stay."