In March of 1994 I was in third grade. Trey Burke wasn't yet 18 months old and Caris LeVert wasn't even born. But Michigan basketball was a fully formed thing, a collection of brash phenoms tearing through college basketball. Chris Webber had moved on that year, but he left the remaining fab four to get Michigan back to the finals. The Wolverines made it to the Elite Eight before flaming out. Still, this was Michigan basketball. It was only a matter of time before another run.
Over the next 19 years the Wolverines would make the tournament seven times (two of those were wiped off the books in the Ed Martin scandal) and win a game in the tournament four times. Michigan went almost the entire lifespan of most of its team without reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. It lived through a crippling NCAA scandal, four coaches, survived a number of sub-.500 seasons, and constantly led its fans to believe that the breakthrough was just around the corner. That it was only a matter of time.
It was only a matter of time. Just more time than any of us thought possible. Michigan basketball has been to hell and back. It wasn't long ago that Michigan was the same kind of team that Penn State is now. A discombobulated mess of ill fitting basketball talent not well enough coached to obscure the fact that the team is in way over its head. Michigan was the punching bag.
Those struggles cropped up again this season. Michigan limped to a 6-6 record over its last 12 games, including a loss to Big Ten bottom-feeder Penn State, and two close losses to conference champ Indiana. Michigan at times looked equal parts overwhelmed and physically deficient. Big Ten basketball -- a style of play just short of an actual punch in the face -- got the best of Michigan. The bouncy, energetic Michigan of the early season was gone, or at least on vacation. The last two games, that team has come back.
We are somewhat spoiled now, as fans. This team is so happy its players all exhibiting a level of aww-shucks demeanor that only a bunch of freshman and sophomores holding back big grins can manage. That is, everyone except Trey Burke, who dominates conversations the same way he dominates on the basketball court, always used to being the center of attention, reveling in it. Burke is the center of this team, and outward from him all good things flow. Even in a game where he is 2/12 from the field, or where his turnovers (seven) are as numerous as his assists, he is still the catalyst for everything Michigan does.
When everything is clicking, Michigan plays some of the best basketball in the country. Against SDSU on Thursday, Michigan started slow, but eventually poured it on thanks to monster games from Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., both of whom scored 21 points on a variety of drives, transition baskets, and open looks from three.
However, the most important facet of Michigan's tournament success thus far -- and arguably the biggest factor going forward -- is the "light on" moment that Mitch McGary had sometime in the last month or so. The freshman center has been playing better and better, slowly pushing his way into more and more of Jordan Morgan's playing time. And once Morgan fell into a slump, it was McGary that stepped up and took over.
What he has been able to do thus far in the tournament has been impressive. He followed up a strong 13/9 game against SDSU with a downright dominant 21/14 game against VCU in which he missed just one of his 11 shots, controlled the paint on both ends of the floor, and made a number of jaw-dropping hustle plays. Against Michigan's first two opponents, McGary has asserted himself as a game changer, a bowling ball of energy plowing through anything that gets in its way. Even when he isn't moving, his strength is apparent.
But the tournament isn't won by teams that can play to their strengths. What Michigan faced in the first two games were favorable matchups against teams that were either molded in the same image as Michigan, or focused on attacking Michigan's best traits.
The Jackrabbits were a poor man's Michigan team. A high usage, high scoring point guard opening up dunks and threes for his teammates. Nate Wolters is the taller, white Trey Burke, and a possible late NBA draft pick. He is surrounded by one of the top three point shooting squads in the country. The Jackrabbits shoot well, don't turn the ball over, and play just enough defense to get by. They are Michigan of the Summit conference. The Wolverines easily prevailed after a slow start.
VCU was supposed to be a real test, but Michigan quickly answered the only question that mattered (could the Wolverines handle the havoc press?), making the rest of the game academic. Once VCU was unable to force turnovers with its press to generate easy baskets, Michigan was free to set the tempo on its own, forcing VCU to score in the halfcourt, and taking advantage of rebounds and steals for transition baskets when the Rams failed offensively. Trey Burke and Co. couldn't have dismantled VCU any more unless they pulled out a tool set and took apart cyborg-Shaka Smart at halfcourt in front of 24000 people.
These were the games Michigan was well primed to win. Kansas is not.
The Jayhawks bring a big, experienced squad capable of playing shut-down defense and scoring at a fast pace. Kansas starts four seniors, including seven-footer Jeff Withey, along with freshman sensation Ben McLemore. The rotation is rounded out by a number of exciting freshmen and sophomores, and Kansas brings the same kind of profile as Michigan State -- a team that gave Michigan trouble on the road this year.
But those questions are better left for Friday. Right now, Michigan is preparing for the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since I was an elementary school student. We all just witnessed one of the most fun and complete weekends of Michigan basketball that there has been in a long time.
Let's hope the ride isn't done just yet. I'm not ready to get off. Besides, there are more streaks to be broken, more highlights to be laid down, and every game could be one last precious chance to watch one of the best players in Michigan basketball history do his thing in maize and blue.
It truly is great to be a Michigan Wolverine.