As we all await tonight’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against Oregon with bated breath, taking a moment to relive what, in my mind, was the most remarkable Michigan basketball game ever will at least kill some time until tipoff. It wasn’t the most important game in program history, and the team may have not been at its full power for all forty minutes, but it was a completely unmoored rollercoaster of a contest that resulted in one of the most ecstatic March victories ever.
That’s right, y’all, we’re talking about the 2013 Sweet Sixteen!
First, a little context. The Wolverines came into the year a top five team after ending the season co-champions of the Big Ten and Trey Burke’s (semi-reluctant) announcement that he’d be back for his sophomore season. They hovered around the top five until late January, when some cracks started to show due mostly to fatigue and inexperience.
Indiana visited Ann Arbor for the final game of the regular season; a Michigan win would have produced a four team logjam atop the Big Ten, ensuring a second straight shared title, but a last minute Indiana tip-in wound up knocking Michigan all the way down to the four line for the NCAA Tournament.
Due to the team’s late season semi-swoon, the South Dakota Jackrabbits were a trendy upset pick in the first round. No such thing came close to passing; Michigan won, 71-56, earning them a matchup with VCU in the Round of Thirty-Two, in which—you guessed it—VCU was a popular upset pick.
“Michigan won’t be able to handle VCU’s kinetic press,”; “The Big Ten doesn’t have teams that play the way VCU does,”; “VCU is a tournament hardened team, Michigan isn’t,” said a disconcerting number of pundits in anticipation of The Round of 32. In the end, Mitch McGary revealed a shockingly sophisticated and devastating high-post game that led to a 78-53 Michigan win.
Next came the Kansas Jayhawks, the one seed out of the region. Freshman sensation and presumptive number two pick in the NBA draft Ben McLemore would roast Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glen Robinson III—the thinking went—while senior behemoth Jeff Withey would put out-of-almost-nowhere freshman superstar Mitch McGary in his place.
The game started inauspiciously, with Michigan falling behind and Mitch McGary getting nut-tapped early. This was the first time that the Wolverines had looked truly out of sorts since their matchup against Indiana in Bloomington two months prior. McGary was holding his own with Withey by drawing the Jayhawk out of the paint on offense and throwing his weight into him on defense, but Kansas’ wings looked to be too much for Hardaway Jr., Robinson III, and a green Nik Stauskas. Even Trey was having trouble against his opponents’ length and speed.
Down ten (!!!) with less than four minutes to play, Michigan started to claw its way back, here’s how it went.
McGary stepped in front of Withey on a lazy entry pass and started a fast break to make it an eight point game.
Withey then threw one down to extend the lead back to ten with 2:50 remaining.
Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a contested layup and a three on the same possession, giving the ball back to Kansas. Michigan still down ten, 2:30 remaining.
Glenn Robinson III runout off an errant pass, Jayhawk lead back to eight.
Trey Burke forces a backcourt violation against Elijah Johnson, Michigan ball.
Burke to McGary makes it 72-66, 1:49 remaining.
Two Kansas free throws make it and eight point game once again.
Absurd off balance thirty footer from Burke makes it a five point game (this will become important later).
Ben McLemore misses a layup over Jordan Morgan, Michigan ball with 0:39 remaining.
GLENN ROBINSON III WITH A TWISTING, CONTESTED REVERSE LAYUP!!! THREE POINT GAME, TIMEOUT MICHIGAN.
Caris fouls Elijah Johnson with twenty-one seconds left. Johnson sinks both, five point game with twenty seconds left, Michigan is left with no timeouts.
Burke to the rack with an easy layup. WE AIN’T DEAD YET.
Johnson misses the front end of a one-and-one.
[. . .]
AISUGFVIWBVNPO IKBN KJBWEVC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
That shot would tie the game up and send it into overtime, but there was no way in hell that Michigan was gonna lose after Trey drained that shot. Thus, Michigan won 87-85 in overtime.
On to the Elite Eight they went, and eventually they were ousted by Louisville in the National Championship. Nothing compared to this game, though. Michigan hasn’t won an NCAA title in my lifetime, so the Kansas game is—in my mind—the pinnacle of Michigan basketball.
Michigan would go on to embarrass Florida in the Elite Eight and squeak one out against Syracuse in the Final Four, but the Kansas game stands alone. It was the game when people finally realized that yes, Michigan could indeed exist as a basketball school, and that yes, Trey Burke was indeed the best player in the country, and that yes, if you’re downwind from fairy dust in March you can erase a ten point lead against the best team in the country in fewer than two minutes.
It was March distilled into its purest form. Bottled in bond.
Make no doubt about it, this year’s team is not the 2013 squad, but I like the team’s chances with a couple of sharpshooting wings, a big man or two that can play, and point guard that just seems to know exactly when it’s time to take over.