The final seconds ticked off and Michigan had defeated a Florida team that some considered to be the best in the land at various points in the season. Michigan had not simply won, they'd won convincingly, by 20 points and with very little second half drama. As a freshman at Michigan during the 2007-08 season, Beilein's first in Ann Arbor and one that ended with a 10-22 mark, the scenery up here is quite nice.
A 6-0 Gator run early in the second half threatened to bring the lead down to the single digits, but Nik Stauskas quashed that little insurrection with yet another dagger of a three, his sixth of the game. it was the return of early season Stauskas, the whose shot went up and appeared to be on a perfectly calculated trajectory every single time. This was not the same Stauskas who spent much of the Big Ten season mired in a struggle to hunt for and make his shots while also barely staying afloat on the defensive end.
This was the deadeye Stauskas, the sort of guy that nearly every championship team seems to have. With Stauskas' 22 points --on a downright hilarious 7/8 mark from the field, 6/6 from beyond the arc-- he became the fifth Wolverine to score 20+ points in a game this tournament.
Stauskas was 2/16 from three in his last four games, but he brought it on Sunday. Among many other things, that is what has been so remarkable about this run: Trey is Trey, always, but in every game someone has stepped up with a supernova of a performance. Against SDSU, it was Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. Against VCU and Kansas, it was Mitch McGary and, of course, Trey Burke. Against Florida and its staunch defense, it was Nik Stauskas, who rained threes from the sky like Legolas unleashing arrow after arrow over a sea of orcs who look strangely like alligators.
Michigan won the tip, and on its second possession none other than Mitch McGary started the scoring (a layup, of course). Perhaps the pregame chatter from some of the Kansas and Florida bigs was unjustifiably magnified by the game of telephone that is the Internet, but, regardless, McGary once again proved that he is always an arm's reach away from where you think he should be. It's easy to look at McGary's game and mutter something about how when he heads your way, you'll stop him. It's like nodding your head at a math problem your teach has just solved on the board, telling yourself that each step in the logically cascading yet complicated process could have been independently unpacked and reached by you.
Stopping Alabama's offensive attack is easy to do. Just stop the run and force their quarterback to make a play and you'll be just fine. Just stop Alabama's running game and you'll be just fine.
Unfortunately for Michigan's opponents, stopping Mitch McGary is simple in theory but not so in practice, like Alabama's running game. Through the past couple of weekends, McGary has been uncontainable, always dancing just outside the domain of an opponents' supposedly well-laid plan. Body him up, make him step out to the perimeter, challenge him with height (i.e. be Jeff Withey), etc. These all sound nice, but they also sound desperate in retrospect, like Ozymandias set to the hardwood. We had plans, and those plans went completely awry. Here's a withering relic for proof; we were here, then Mitch McGary was here, and, well, one of us is no longer here.
McGary didn't quite match the whopping 25 points he put up against Kansas, but his stat line was still very impressive against UF, who feature a strong pair of forward types in Patric Young and Will Yeguete (both of whom I could easily picture playing in the Big Ten). The youngster scored 11 points on 5/8 shooting and added nine rebounds, five steals and two blocks. It's as if somebody gave McGary a bottle labeled "Secret Stuff" before the tournament and McGary, being Mitch McGary, trustingly put all his faith in the magical powers of said Stuff, hence the tournament performance.
Michigan started the game with a 13-0 run; there is no doubt that Florida's players, coaches and fans were channeling their inner Admiral Ackbar at that point. After McGary's aforementioned first layup, he scored again, this time on a ludicrous behind the back pass from Stauskas in transition, setting McGary up for the easy slam.
Michigan didn't stop there, like a baseball team smelling blood in the water, looking to knock the starter out in the second inning. Michigan added a Stauskas three and two buckets apiece from McGary and Burke. In an instant, Florida was overrun. The Gators scored their first basket at the 16:30 mark, but Erik Murphy began the game with two misses in a row, which turned out to be an ominous sequence for him: Murphy, who I figured to be the most worrisome player on the Gators' roster, went 0/11 from the field and scored zero points.
I'm not sure how much of Florida's inability to hit shots can be attributed to Michigan's defense. Even if you were to say that Michigan's defense was not much of a factor at all, Florida missed its shots while Michigan made shot after shot. As trite as it sounds, making shots and just making plays is what it comes down to at this point in the season. When I say "making plays," I don't even mean it in the macho sense of the word, as in Florida didn't make plays because they weren't aggressive enough or they didn't "want" it enough or any of that other useless sports psychology drivel.
Burke hit GRIII for an alley-oop slam at the 5:27 mark to put Michigan up 35-15. Burke sauntered back the other way, smiling. Watching the highlights hours after the game had ended, if you watch this particular play without any sort of context, you'd think that Burke's expression was one of somebody who had already won. The ultimate margin of victory was 20, but the true difference in the game was that Michigan had someone like Trey Burke to run the show, and Florida didn't.
My favorite Chicago Blackhawks blog (yes yes, I know) makes it a habit of saying "He's Marian Hossa and you're not" whenever he does something crazy, which happens fairly often. I often find myself thinking the same thing about Burke whenever he crosses a hapless defender over or executes a beautiful step back jumper: He's Trey Burke and you're not. Even when he's not necessarily filling it up in a huge or efficient way (he had 15 points on 5/16 shooting), he almost always looks like the best player on the floor, something that's always nice when that player is your point guard.
After yet another Stauskas three put Michigan up 41-17 late in the first half, Nik cruised back down, flexing and emitting his personal brand of barbaric post-dagger yawping, the kind that we haven't really seen in some time.
A few minutes earlier, Erik Murphy had grabbed an offensive rebound off of a Patric Young miss, but McGary was there to snatch it away from him like a toy between children. "That's mine," McGary said.
And it was his. He whisked it away, brandishing the ball behind his back as it was the newest Transformers action figure. It was one of those subtle moments, where thoughts of whether or not this level of play could continue give way to considerations of dominance.
To be sure, basketball (especially tournament basketball) is a game of violent and sometimes unpredictable swings. Yet, there are moments in which things become clear, when the unshrouded essence of a particular game is revealed. Moments like this, any of Stauskas' threes, GRIII's thunderous alley-oop jams or Burke's ankle-imploding crossovers, made it clear that one this day, one squad was very obviously operating on a higher plane than the other.
Perhaps Florida could have played a better game against this Wolverine squad. I suppose we will never know, but the odds of Erik Murphy going 0/11 from the field, or UF shooting 20% from three while Michigan shoots 53%, are not great. With that said, Michigan's performance on this day is all that matters.
On this day, Michigan brought home a banner. Not a shared regular season title: a banner.
More will be said about Saturday's showdown in Atlanta against Syracuse, but there's something tantalizing about merely getting to the Final Four in the first place. I'm certainly not saying that I would be completely unaffected by a Michigan loss on Saturday or in a hypothetical title game appearance, but making it to a Final Four is an accomplishment in and of itself. After all, people wouldn't hang up banners to commemorate this achievement if it didn't mean something more.
Michigan's work is not done. If the Wolverines can solve Syracuse's pesky 2-3 zone, they will likely face an admittedly pretty scary Louisville squad in the title game. However, a victory Saturday is absolutely by no means guaranteed, and it should be noted that Michigan did seem to struggle when the Gators moved to a matchup zone look. The Orange's zone is a completely different animal, but Michigan will once again need to shift gears entirely to meet its opponent on even ground.
Of course, this rides on John Beilein, who couldn't possibly have more praise thrown his way for the job he's done, not just this season but ever since he came to Ann Arbor. Amid all the Burke, McGary and Stauskas hysteria, it's easy to forget about the man quietly pulling the strings from the sideline, the director knowing when to direct and when to let his actors act.
Beilein is 0-9 against Jim Boeheim in his career. A win Saturday would just be one more slain dragon on Beilein's CV.
But, for now, we have several days to bask in the afterglow of this performance. What we saw yesterday was likely one of the most lopsided Elite 8 matchups between closely seeded teams in recent years, and yes, that was our Michigan out there doing it. That was the Michigan that wandered through the wilderness like King Lear for over a decade, stumbling to NIT appearances and embarrassing defeats in conference play, the Michigan that once took pretty good talent and wittled it down to an average, unspectacular nothing.
Michigan is going to the Final Four. Michigan is going to the Final Four. Michigan is going to the Final Four.
Can you believe it? I'm not sure if I do. I don't think I will until the ball goes up again at 8:49 Saturday night in Atlanta.