March 22, 2014

Borton's Blog: So very sweet

This 16 couldn't get any sweeter if they soaked Lucas Oil Stadium in honey and used cargo planes to airdrop sugar on it. The Wolverines are going back, showing everybody they belong.

Those that didn't want the Wolverines back in any way, shape or form clung to the desperate hope that last year was a fluke. Sure, the national Player of the Year carried them to an NCAA championship game. Enjoy it, because it's a one-year wonder.

When Trey Burke bolted for the NBA, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. joined him, they'd surely take the magic with them. When Mitch McGary dropped from the lineup with back surgery in December, this team certainly couldn't hold up.

And then it did.

Then it rampaged through the Big Ten, winning the league by three games. When the Wolverines stood in the locker room in Milwaukee and boomed out, "The Victors" - after a Sweet 16-clinching 79-65 win over Texas - the Michigan haters found their jaws wired shut.

John Beilein, racking up the 700th victory in a coaching career seeing its pinnacle in Ann Arbor, fairly beamed afterward. Not about No. 700. He didn't even know about that, until informed.

No, Beilein's bliss emanated from the looks on the faces all around him, the confirmation that grand plan when he arrived - the one to put Michigan back on the map - has the cartographers working overtime.

Make way, Indianapolis. The Wolverines are coming back, ready for anything and everything.

"We're really proud of this," Beilein offered. "We knew it would be difficult, with the schedule we had, the bracket we're in. When you can go to a Sweet 16 … it's really hard to get to.

"There was one time when I was coaching, way back when, and I don't know where I was, that I said: 'If we ever get to the Sweet 16, I might retire.' It's so hard to win in the NCAA Tournament. To make it again is really good."

To make it with emphasis doesn't hurt, either. That's precisely what the Wolverines did against a Texas team that gulped ink like it was oil in the days leading to the match-up.

The Wolverines heard so much about Texas front-line starters of Cameron Ridley (6-9, 285) and Jonathan Holmes (6-8, 240), they considered changing the names on their uniforms across the board to "David." That's the proper protocol, after all, when taking on Goliath.

In reality, the Wolverines came in ticked off, with enough chips on their shoulder to stock a casino. Fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan, in particular, achieved a heavy-duty focus.

"It was extremely personal," U-M big men coach Bacari Alexander noted, with a broad grin. "I kind of chuckled a little bit. He was frowning at some of the dining room staff at the hotel. I said, 'Jordan, what's going on? He said, 'I'm just thinking about Ridley.'"

Morgan didn't just think about the Texas-sized behemoth. He did something about him. Ridley banged his way to six points and nine rebounds in his team's season-ender. Morgan went 15 and 10, with two assists, two steals and a 7-for-8 performance at the free throw line.

One Texas beat writer reacted with shock when he saw how relatively small Michigan's big men were against Wofford. Morgan grew a bit more in everyone's eyes after that performance.

"Jordan Morgan is a testament to what Michigan basketball represents," Alexander insisted. "The performance that he gave tonight represented the moxie, the belief, the determination all throughout his career.

"For that young man to have 15 points and 10 rebounds against a formidable opponent like Ridley, and out-perform him, I'll take him down a dark alley with me any day."

From the oldest to the youngest, Michigan came to play. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. banged home an early three, helping Michigan on its way to a 43-30 halftime lead. The Wolverines hit the Longhorns with a barrage of triples - 14 over the course of the game - striking early and often.

"My mindset was to swing first," Walton said. "You never want to be playing catch-up in a situation like this. Swing first, throw the first punch, and try to sustain the lead so you don't have to play from behind."

After Nik Stauskas' three-pointer 4:35 into the game, the Wolverines never did trail. They led by as many as 18, and when the Longhorns summoned up hope by hammering the glass (21 offensive rebounds, 13 second-chance points) and turning up the defensive heat, Michigan stayed cool.

On came Spike Albrecht, dribbling through the Texas press like a roadrunner eluding tumbleweeds. When the Longhorns slashed the margin to nine, Albrecht nailed a three-point bomb to make it a dozen again.

"That's his job," assured guards coach LaVall Jordan. "He's done a great job his whole career here at Michigan, and his whole life, of easing everybody up, settling things down. He came in when they started to press and did a phenomenal job down the stretch.

"It's something he brings to the table that we appreciate greatly. He's got a poise about him. He's low to the ground, he can handle the ball, he can find teammates. It's not something we take for granted. We love Spike, and we know what he brings to the table. He embraces his job."

Over and over, Michigan embraced the challenge in this one. If it wasn't Stauskas banging home one of his four threes or tossing off one of eight assists, it was Glenn Robinson III or Caris LeVert coming through.

Robinson drove hard and made a tough bank right over Man Mountain Ridley, then came right back down and banged home a three, to again push Texas' hole to double digits. When the Longhorns clawed back within eight with 3:06 remaining and U-M struggling to score, LeVert connected on a clutch three-pointer.

Freshman Zak Irvin added two bombs of his own, leaving Texas reeling like they'd seen Tom Landry return without a fedora.

Every challenge met. Every big-versus-little suggestion answered, in a huge way.

And now, every bag packed for Indianapolis. After Sunday, 16 teams will be left standing. Beilein's rebuilt crew, one of the youngest in NCAA basketball, will be one of them.

"It's huge," Albrecht insisted. "One of our goals is getting to the second weekend. Anything can happen once you get to the Sweet 16. Any team can win."

"It means a lot," LeVert concurred. "We knew, coming into the season, that we were going to be a top team. It was one of our goals to get back to this point, and we're not finished yet."

Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Year and perhaps the most the most swagger-laden amid a confident bunch, played it cool. But he also let it be known the Wolverines won't be intimidated by any team, of any size, in Indianapolis and perhaps beyond.

"We've been like that all year," he said. "We feel like, regardless of who we're playing, if we play our game and style of basketball, we feel confident that anything is possible."

Michigan's style of basketball, Beilein's style of basketball, once drew sneers and sideways glances, while the much-traveled coach was putting the pieces in place. Now, nobody's laughing.

The Wolverines, though, are doing plenty of smiling.

"It talks about the program we've established over the course of John Beilein's tenure," Alexander stressed. "It's important to note, we've been able to identify the right type of kids that can continue our five core values - unity, passion, appreciation, integrity and diligence. It's that diligence that allowed us to ascend to this level of consistency.

"Now the challenge is, maintaining those sorts of expectations. That's the next chapter in Michigan basketball."

The next immediate chapter turns the page in Indianapolis. Beilein promises to show up, despite his once-upon-a-time pondering retirement over a Sweet 16. He's got two in a row, and counting.

"No, no, no, no, no!" he said, laughingly protesting when asked if he's going anywhere. "I just love the fact that we have Michigan where we believed Michigan could be when I came here, with the consistency not only in the Big Ten race, but in the NCAAs."

There, and far from satisfied. This team has dreams of its own, and sees no reason to stop now.

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