February 6, 2014

Borton's Blog: It takes a roster

Trey Burke played pretty well last year. Well enough to be named consensus national Player of the Year in college basketball. But not well enough to carry Michigan to the NCAA title game.

By himself, that is. No Michigan basketball fan will ever forget Burke's ICBM of a three-pointer that blew the feathers off Kansas' Jayhawks and tied the Sweet 16 match-up between the teams, 76-76, with four seconds remaining in regulation. U-M fans had already been booking flights home, down 10 points with 2:52 remaining.

But Burke's unbelievable deep ball capped a 23-8 rally in the final moments, and led to Michigan's unbelievable 87-85 overtime win. Without that shot, without that rally, the Wolverines enjoy a nice season - near miss on a Big Ten championship, and a run to the Sweet 16.

With it, they went on to post one of their all-time greatest NCAA runs, coming within a few bounces, calls, and one red-hot Cardinal of becoming national champs.

Memorable, indeed.

What Michigan fans probably don't remember involves Burke going 1-for-8 two games later against Syracuse in the national semifinal. He scored seven points, in a 61-56 Michigan win in which tallies were tougher to come by than media pleasantries with Jim Boeheim.

Had it not been for Tim Hardaway's hard-fought 13 points and five assists in that game - along with 10 points each by Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary - Burke's farewell tour would have ended early.

The point? Simply this: in order to make things happen in March, it's never a one-man show. Even during the greatest shooting performance the tournament has ever witnessed - Glen Rice in the spring of 1989 - the Wolverines don't reach the pinnacle without all hands on deck.

The same can be said for last spring's dream ride. Without McGary fashioning the sort of madness in March that made him a pre-season All-American, the run doesn't happen. Michigan might have still beaten a fairly fraudulent Florida in the Elite Eight even without Nik Stauskas' 6-for-6 effort on threes, but it would have been a whole lot tougher.

It's some steady Spike Albrecht minutes against VCU here, Jordan Morgan taking a charge there. It's a world of contributions, just enough, just at the right time.

All of which makes it a bit foolish to write off any regular on the present roster. Robinson has been taking his turn as the Wolverines' forgotten man, or at least someone whose recent struggles raised serious concerns.

Robinson poured in 23 points Wednesday night against Nebraska, connecting on 8 of 14 shots, 3 of 7 from three-point range, and all of his free throws. Some shrugged, given the 79-50 rout that had even Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles ruefully wisecracking about the game.

Cynics looked at the effort and said, "Let's see him to it in a game that matters."

Perhaps the last Michigan-Nebraska game qualifies. You know, the 71-70 cliffhanger in Lincoln. Michigan needed every one of Robinson's 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting that night.

Or, how about the Wolverines' 72-70 home loss to No. 1 Arizona, in which Robinson tallied 20 on 8-for-9 shooting? Granted, Michigan didn't win the game, but without Robinson's effort, the game isn't close.

That's why Robinson's renewed shooting touch on Wednesday means something. It definitely did to him, after he's been working hard to shoot his way out of a slump.

"I found something in my shot that I needed to change," Robinson said. "I was just talking to my high school coach, and I changed it. The shot felt great, and Mitch actually helped me shoot the other night. They just seemed to fall."

The tweak wasn't a big one, he assured. But it was enough.

"It was just a little thing in my shot technique," Robinson said. "I wasn't holding the ball quite right, putting my elbow up under the ball a little bit. That definitely seemed to help."

He'd started the Nebraska game in strong fashion anyway, slamming home the first bucket of the game on a read play dubbed "Burn." The alley-oop proved as high percentage as it gets, sort of like counting on snow in Ann Arbor these days.

Plus, Robinson had taken to heart a pre-game urging that seemed almost antithetical to his friendly, somewhat laid-back personality.

"When they said 'play angry,' guys just kind of got amped up," Robinson said. "That got us going."

After going down quietly at Assembly Hall on Sunday, they needed to play angry. And play together. And play with the sort of decisiveness that demonstrates they won't plummet via a losing streak, like the many who have already fallen by the Big Ten wayside.

They needed to demonstrate something else, something they already knew but that required a reminder. As good as he is, this isn't the Stauskas Show.

The Big Ten's leading scorer coming into the week, and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, Stauskas got off six shots against Indiana, three versus Nebraska. In the second game, it didn't matter.

Robinson, fellow sophomore Caris LeVert (16 points) and freshman Zak Irvin (16) more than filled the scoring void on the night. Some other night, it has to be freshman point guard Derrick Walton, or Morford (the Morgan-Jon Horford combo), or Stauskas himself, with Albrecht tossing in a steady-to-spectacular hand.

"The biggest thing for us was to not get down on ourselves, just because we lost one game," Robinson said. "We had to bounce back, and hopefully be a little bit angry, but still with our confidence. We had to get that swagger back."

Robinson needed his, assuredly. Whereas it would be difficult to imagine Stauskas losing his swagger, he'll need to get his scoring back.

Just not every night.

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