After a wildly entertaining run through the NCAA Tournement, the Michigan Wolverines are playing in the Final Four for the first time since 1993.
Michigan rolled through the first two rounds of the Tournament, beating South Dakota State (25-10, 13-3) and Virginia Commonwealth (27-9, 12-4).
Though their first two wins were impressive, Michigan’s first test came in the Sweet 16 against No. 1 seed Kansas. Kansas boasted a lineup consisting of freshman phenom Ben McLemore, a projected high lottery pick, and seven-foot, shot-blocking center Jeff Withey.
The Wolverines played well in the first half. It was not until the second half, however, where the Jayhawks started to pull away. Kansas maintained a double digit lead for much of the second half, including a 68-54 advantage with only 6:51 left in regulation.
Then Trey Burke happened.
Burke scored all 23 of his points after the first half. He tore through the Kansas defense, shooting three pointers, slashing through the lain for layups, setting up teammates. He did it all.
But with 3:47 left on the clock and down by 11 points, the Wolverines season again seemed all but over. However, the untested Michigan team was not going home quite yet.
From that point on, Michigan only allowed one field goal and outscored Kansas 17-6, cutting the lead down to 76-73. With 13 seconds left, the Wolverines best player needed to have the ball in his hands.
After a missed Kansas free throw, the boys in blue had one last legitimate chance to hit a three and send the game into overtime.
Burke ran up the court towards the left wing. He found space between his defender, pulled up from roughly 30 feet away and drained the most important shot of his career.
After a missed shot by Kansas, the game went into overtime. Michigan maintained their momentum and composure and ousted the Jayhawks for their first Elite 8 appearance since 1994.
Burke was quoted in an article featured on ESPN.com explaining the Wolverine’s resilience against Kansas.
“We never had the mindset that we were going to lose the game,” Burke said. “When we were down 14, we knew anything could still happen. It’s March, anything can happen.”
The Wolverines had somewhat of a roller-coaster season.
They were undefeated in non-conference play and they were ranked No. 1 in the country early in the season. They stumbled late, going 4-6 in their last 10 regular season games. In those games, they were blown out by in-state rivals Michigan State (27-9, 13-5) and gave Penn State (10-21, 2-16), a Big ten bottom dweller, their first conference loss.
They lost at Wisconsin (27-9, 12-6) in dramatic fashion after Badgers Forward Ben Brust made a last second heave to send the game into overtime. All hopes of repeating as Big Ten regular season champs were lost after a loss to Indiana at home.
In the Big Ten Tournament Michigan continued to disappoint, losing to the Badgers, yet again, in the second round.
Not many people outside of Ann Arbor had much faith that the boys in blue would make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Experts labeled the Wolverines as too young, too immature and too inexperienced to do any serious damage.
That is, until the Tournament actually started, and Michigan displayed efficiency, poise and confidence.
After upsetting Kansas in the Sweet 16, advanced to the Elite 8 Michigan to face No. 3 seed Florida (29-8, 14-4). Michigan ran an offensive clinic of The Gators, especially Michigan freshman sharp shooter Nik Stauskas, who matched a career high 22 points on 6-6 from beyond the arc.
Stauskas was quoted in an article on ESPN.com describing the feeling of making it to the Final Four.
“I’ve been working and dreaming my whole life about something like this, Stauskas said. “To finally have it, I have a smile on my face and I’m enjoying the moment.”
And like that the Wolverines are back in the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five era. Trey Burke was named the South Regional Most Outstanding Player. Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary were also named to the All-Regional team.
In an article featured on ESPN.com John Beilein discussed Trey Burkes leadership throughout his career.
“The whole year he has been just as calm and cool as if he were a fifth-year redshirt senior guard,” Beilein said. “He’s [played] with three to five freshmen all year long. Here he is, the cagey, veteran sophomore.”
But that was not the only award Burke has to add to his trophy case. The sophomore point guard was named a consensus First Team All-American by every major poll, the AP Player of the Year, the Sports Illustrated Player of the Year, All- Big Ten First Team and Big Ten Player of the Year. He has also been awarded the Bob Cousy Award as the best point guard in the country and the Wooden Award as the countries most outstanding player.
The stars appear to be aligning for the Michigan Wolverines. Their best player continues to seemingly will his team to victory, but the improved play of roll players, especially freshman center Mitch McGary, has been huge for Michigan.
McGary, who averaged less than seven points per game during the regular season, is averaging 17.5 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game in the tournament.
Michigan has the chance to win their first National Championship since 1989, when they defeated Seton Hall. It would also be the first National Championship won by a Big Ten team since Michigan State won in 2000.
The Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season. With all of the pieces in place, John Beilein, Trey Burke and company are under massive amounts of pressure to win it all this year. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like that bothers them in the slightest.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons