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November 2, 2012Four Michigan basketball players filed into the Junge Champions Center, buzzing with excited optimism after an 83-47 exhibition victory over Northern Michigan, the team's most comfortable exhibition win since beating NMU, 105-56, on Nov. 11, 2005.
Two players, redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan and junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., represented the Wolverines' climb to this newfound national prominence. They remember the days when they were forced to practice in the IM Building or find a ride to Eastern Michigan's practice facilities, watching the program - figuratively and literally - build around them.
Two players, freshman Glenn Robinson III and Spike Albrecht, represented the culmination of that rise to the top, as two cogs in Michigan's most prestigious recruiting class since the early 1990s. They are the future, charged with winning the program's second consecutive Big Ten Championship - and more.
Just as eager consumer flock to the latest iPhone unveiling, hoards of reporters flocked to Albrecht and Robinson; new-and-exciting is always more flashy than tried-and-true. As the rookies were surrounded by cameras and recorders, Hardaway and Morgan stretched out on the other side of the room.
"The freshmen are getting all the attention today," joked a Michigan athletic department employee, smiling.
"That's alright with me," Hardaway responded, no doubt remembering the similar throngs he experienced during his breakout freshman season. "That's great."
This is the new Hardaway - the leader. He finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers, a level of balance and consistency he has rarely shown in his three-year career.
His stat line against the Wildcats marked just the second time in Hardaway's career that he finished with at least five in point, rebounds and assists. Last season against Memphis in the Maui Invitational, Hardaway put together perhaps the most complete game of his career, going for 21 points, seven boards and five assists.
If Hardaway can put up those kinds of unselfish numbers on a nightly basis - especially with the sudden influx of talent around him - it could mean big things for the Wolverines.
"I like the five assists, no turnovers," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "He's got to continue to see his role as a guard as a different role sometimes. I just liked that he went in there and rebounded the ball - those first couple defensive rebounds, he hasn't done a lot of that. He's trying to do more things, be a better assist guy, a better defender and still hit big shots for us.
"I told Timmy, because he was so unselfish, 'Timmy, you need to score points.'
But the way they passed it around and saw each other was good. And when we come out and make threes like we were, and were passing it around, is good for us."
And Hardaway is embracing his new increasingly multi-dimensional role.
He attempted just nine shots against the Wildcats; he shot fewer than that in just four games last season.
But Hardaway's five assists match a career high. He reached that mark just twice last season, and he's collected more than eight rebounds just three times since arriving in Ann Arbor (his career high is 11, set last season at Illinois).
And he put it all together against the Wildcats.
"I'm just doing whatever I can to help the team out," Hardaway said. "I said before, 'I'm going to do whatever coach Beilein wants me to do.' Whether it's getting the teammates involved, grabbing every board I can, knocking down a wide-open shot. I'm going to try and do whatever I can, and I hope I did a good job of that tonight."
Beilein knows the Wolverines will need to rely on their veteran playmakers more heavily when the season begins in earnest. Freshmen are bound to make mistakes.
And with talent spread around him - and more looks coming because of it - he has no doubt that Hardaway can be that time of player, too.
Whatever the team needs.
"He's becoming more of a playmaker, as well," Beilein said. "What I like about Tim his he can get his own shot, doesn't need a lot of space on the perimeter to get his shot. I saw a couple takes today, slashing, that might have been a charge his freshman year. He's getting in there and finding people. He's got that ability to be a slasher, a shooter, a scorer. I know we'll be calling his number a lot at different times this year."