Coming into the game it seemed pretty clear what would be the most important aspect of the game: who controlled the paint. Kansas had a distinct advantage given the presence of seven-footer Jeff Withey and a team full of long, athletic perimeter defenders. The Jayhawks spent the year building the best 2pt FG defense in the nation while shooting overwhelmingly well (52.6%) from inside the arc on the other end and doing so while taking the vast majority (over 70%) of their shots from there.
Kansas was an easy team to figure out. They will play good harassing perimeter defense, defend shots, and let Jeff Withey control the paint. You don't beat that. You neutralize it. Or at least you try.
Michigan did try, and it is a credit to Mitch McGary that he was able to put together the kind of game he was able to against one of the premier shot blockers in the country. The freshman scored 25 points on 12/17 shooting, pulled down 14 rebounds (five offensive), and added three steals, a block, and an assist to just one turnover. Michigan called on McGary to deliver, and he did so in impressive fashion.
He was largely the only one for quite a while. Michigan's other front court player, Glenn Robinson III, was ineffective playing defense against both Kevin Young and Perry Ellis. Meanwhile, Ben McLemore broke out of his slump big time on the way to 20 points on 15 shots. Michigan's defense was routinely victimized by a Kansas team that got into the lane at will. Kansas scored 60 points in the paint on the game (compared to just 40 for Michigan) and for a long time it didn't seem like Michigan had an answer.
On the other end, Michigan's guards looked hesitant to take the ball inside. Trey Burke spent the first half gingerly pulling up on pick and roll opportunities to try and find the pass and avoid challenging Withey. This worked about as well as you can imagine. Burke didn't score, Michigan's offense sputtered at times, and Kansas built an early lead that Michigan managed to keep close. It was six points at the half. That was a harbinger of what was to come. Michigan spent 20 minutes getting thoroughly outclassed, and still stuck close.
The second half saw Michigan put together a series of runs...that Kansas slammed the door on. Michigan just couldn't seem to make a run count. Until late in the fourth. The Wolverines hit a few shots and caught some breaks on the other end. Things got tighter and Michigan continued to push the game closer and closer despite the long odds. Pretty soon it was a three point game and Kansas had a one-and-one attempt. It missed. The rest is Trey Burke.
You could make an argument that Michigan had no business taking that game to overtime. You wouldn't necessarily be wrong. If this was a boxing match, the Wolverines would have lost too many rounds to even split the decision.
But at the end of the day, past the stats and the scouting reports and the NBA futures and the glamour of a Sweet Sixteen game in a shrine to
of Jerry Jones' narcissism football, only one thing matters. Who is on top after 40 (45) minutes.
A couple hours before the game I talked with a friend of mine. He's an older guy who talks a lot of basketball with me. He is a UNC fan, so he knew this Kansas team. He also watched a good amount of Michigan this year -- probably because I gushed about them so much. We talked for a couple minutes and I expressed my doubts like I had all week to anyone that would listen. Kansas was too big, too strong, too skilled defensively. Kansas had the answer to Michigan's offense. He looked at me with the calm demeanor of a guy that's watched his fair share of basketball and made the only point there was to make:
That's why they play the game.
This started out as an obituary on a very good season. I scribbled together some random observations and self-loathing about Michigan losing a game the way I expected them to all week. The funny thing is, at the end of the day it didn't happen.
Trey Burke wouldn't let Michigan lose. He scored all of his 23 points in the second half. Mitch McGary wouldn't let Michigan lose. He scored a career high against one of the best shot-blocking centers in college basketball. Glenn Robinson III wouldn't let Michigan lose. Even though he struggled for long stretches he managed a critical steal and two free throws in overtime to cushion a lead that Michigan would need. They all chipped in. From Spike to Morgan to LeVert. Michigan may not have had the better seed, or even the better team. But for a few minutes on this wonderful Friday in March, Michigan was every bit as good as it needed to be to weather 45 minutes of punches and still stand, hands raised in victory.
We get one more game of Trey Burke in a Michigan uniform. One more game of this team, a walking firecracker wrapped in dynamite dipped in gasoline.
Be happy about that. March isn't usually this kind.