Sunday, March 31, 2013

Forget the Fab Five: Michigan’s Renaissance Better Than Ever

He cradled the bronze plated trophy, handed it to Tim Hardaway Jr. and watched as his team celebrated and partied in North Texas. Then came the tears of joys, the prolonged hugs with his wife, Kathleen, and kids and grandkids. John Beilein, Michigan basketball coach, is a big name at the school, and he has renewed a widely known program. He watched his players climb a ladder to cut down a piece of the net, one by one, and he was proud of his players and embraced the moment, realizing a dream had finally come true.

It’s almost unreal that No. 4 Michigan, going to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five in 1993, thrashed No. 3 Florida 79-59 in the South Regional final Sunday. It’s a real surprise Michigan has made it to this point, lasting longer than expected and radically becoming the storyline of college basketball, but all season long, the Wolverines rate as having the most efficient offense in college basketball — a prolific backcourt with the likes of Hardaway and Trey Burke, who’s believed to be the best guard in the country.

The program is back and it’s necessarily great for Michigan fans that waited a long time to witness such a gratifying moment again in school history. The reemergence of Michigan in 2013 — when they won 26 games and ranked No. 10 in the final AP Top 25 — rekindled a tradition over all other programs. That’s not an overstatement. It’s the truth. But this Michigan team, which is seeking its second championship in school history, is more extraordinary than the Fab Five.

The year, from beginning to end, has been remarkable and folks have seen a glimpse of the latest version of Michigan basketball and fans may have witnessed the best team in school history, yes, more spectacular and proficient than Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson. However, it didn’t seem like a Michigan team would ever be as good as the Fab Five.

As for this Michigan team now, despite having one of the best offenses in college basketball, they weren’t supposed to beat fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, dismissed by so many experts. As for this Michigan team now, despite having a teacher in Beilein, they weren’t supposed to beat No. 1 Kansas, a team that had seniors who could have beaten the Michigan kids. But star guard, Trey Burke, took the last shot in the final minutes of a thrilling Sweet 16 classic. When he hit the game-tying three-point shot over Kansas’ Kevin Young to send it into overtime for what might have been the most sensational second-half comeback in the history of college basketball, amazingly for Michigan, it stunned the world and generated buzz.

The tournament told a story no one hardly believed, every bit as fabulous as Burke’s seven assists, as grand as center Mitch McGary’s 9 rebounds and as outstanding as Nik Stauskas’ 22-point performance to lead all Michigan scorers. You wouldn’t believe it if you see it, but now you can start believing. Michigan fans, the population in Ann Arbor, haven’t stopped believing — keeping the faith and have been very optimistic that this is the moment for the Wolverines to reign supreme in the Big Ten.

This is a great time for Michigan’s program, a rebirth, a revival — renewing its brand name, mastering success and elevating its chances of winning a second title in school history. This is a great story indeed — and would be even greater if they beat fourth-seeded Syracuse on Saturday night in Atlanta to secure the final spot in the NCAA basketball championship on Monday night. Nobody should, as we have done in the month of Madness, ignore and disrespect a renaissance for a national power that finally made the Final Four, erasing the memories of misadventures and long-suffering. It is real what we’ve seen so far, and yet it’s also too tremendous refusing to acknowledge.

There’s a Big Ten team not many expected to make the Final Four. The chances of Michigan winning the whole tournament, evidently in for a heavyweight fight against Syracuse, are likely although the 2-3 zone defense used by Jim Boeheim is a riddle that some of the best teams in the country haven’t been able to understand. But this season, Burke, who is considered a strong candidate for national player of the year honors, is one of the marquee stars of the Big Ten. He has been combustible, knocking down one of the most famous three-point shots in NCAA history, making a dramatic game-winner to become a hero in the month of March.

The Wolverines reached this year’s Final Four by Burke’s playmaking and game-saving shots and by Stauskas’ three-point shooting. This season means something. This season has been a huge accomplishment. Burke is a superstar, a student of the game. He’s grown and he’s matured into a natural ballplayer, an intelligent sophomore in position to win an NCAA championship. For Burke and Stauskas especially, this was a fantastic kind of performance, having arguably their best game this season.

If this day was any hint as to how superb the Wolverines truly have been in this tourney, disbelievers can appreciate what Michigan has accomplished with these offensive weapons, ideal game strategies and efforts. The Wolverines are playing like, you know, hungry beast. The hustling, strenuous boys of Michigan bolts up the floor, moves the ball before it goes to Burke’s hands and then he beats the press to finish at the rim if the ball doesn’t go to McGary up high. It’s an insult to have a Cinderella tag affixed to Michigan’s name in the NCAA tournament when, in fact, the Wolverines pummeled Florida, who was vital and expected to be a Final Four team to some. It can be lovely to watch, so awe-inspiring, an instant classic every spectator looks for when watching the NCAA tournament.

There was something evidently odd that even Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t ever see coming in this tournament matchup. The night for 6-foot-6 freshman Stauskas was beyond exceptional, scoring 22 points on just eight shots and finishing 6-for-6 on 3-pointers to become the first player in NCAA regional finals to reach that plateau. The game began with McGary hitting four shots from the paint, jumping out to a 13-0 start and leading by as many as 25 points in the first half to secure a spot in the regional championship next Saturday. The talent, it seems, is everything for Coach Beilein and Michigan, mind you.

It’s amazing what Beilein, at West Virginia and now Michigan, has done to transform both programs into winners. But at Michigan, he’s done more than just transformed the program back into winners. He’s renewed tradition for a well-known school and has been given a chance to coach elite talent, already modifying the program and attracting prospects who might be interested in committing to play for Beilein’s Wolverines. The program, before he came along to restore it, was shredded and paralyzed for all the misfortunes that Michigan invited over the years.

Beilein, one of the best offensive coaches in the game, has done something not even Brian Ellerbe or Tommy Amaker could accomplish. He’s taught his boys to work diligently and give it their best effort. The resurgence of Michigan happened once Beilein arrived to be a teacher to his kids and he has demanded hard work, discipline and unselfishness. The 2013 Wolverines essentially heals and erases the hideous memories of the sanctions and punishments that poisoned the program — victories were vacated, banners were taken down and the school was banned for the postseason.

What’s not to like about this Michigan team?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolverines win it all.