The Michigan Wolverines are the youngest team in this year’s March Madness, according to Sports Illustrated, but this UM team has grown up in a hurry, finding ability and confidence on the fly that will help them compete on the biggest stage in college hoops—the Final Four.
They are the only team in the NCAA tournament that averages less than one year of experience (0.8 years), with the next closest being No. 5 seed Oklahoma State at 1.01 years.
After a thrilling come-from-behind victory over No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 and today’s dominating rout of No. 3 seed Florida, it’s safe to say that this team no longer lacks big-game savvy.
Before March Madness hit, the baby Wolverines went 4-of-5 against Top 25 teams. Coach John Beilein’s young bunch was 5-5 in road games. Rather than rising to the occasion, many times this season Michigan came close but didn’t consistently finish what they had started in games that mattered.
As young as this Wolverine team is, there have been plenty of lessons to be learned.
Coach Beilein commented in the postgame press conference, “This year we had seven losses. All, every one of those seven were blessings in disguise in some way."
Even if this team has been a work in progress all season, what has changed most recently? How has this team quickly transformed from being a talented team that lacked consistency to a “seasoned” team that has come together in the heat of tournament battle?
Trey Burke’s Leadership
Michigan’s point guard Trey Burke came back for his sophomore season looking to further develop his game.
He has improved in practically every statistical category, but what stands out the most is that he has become a responsible leader on the court. Rather than forcing the action, Burke is so much better this year at reading the game and taking what his opponent “gives” him.
Though he is known as a scoring PG, Burke doesn’t receive the credit he deserves for his playmaking. He was the Big Ten leader in assists and improved his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.6 as a freshman to 3.1 as a sophomore.
The ball is in his capable hands a good share of the time, and Michigan is headed where it is today because Burke is leading the way.
Nik Stauskas’ Upswing
Freshman wing Nik Stauskas has been a terrific outside shooter for the entire 2012-13 season. The 6’6” Canadian native is the Wolverines' best bomber from beyond the arc, hitting 42.9 percent from three.
In the last two games, Stauskas shot 11-of-15 from the floor, including a perfect 6-of-6 from downtown against Florida.
The Wolverines will need to devise a way to contest Syracuse’s smothering 2-3 zone, which will look to spread the Michigan attack as much as possible.
Mitch McGary’s Emergence
The most dramatic recent improvement for Michigan has been the stellar inside play of freshman PF Mitch McGary.
McGary has gone from being an offensive garbage collector to a potent threat down low.
The 6’10” beast has doubled his season’s production in the tournament and has suddenly become a double-double dude (averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game during March Madness).
His game against Kansas’ Jeff Withey was his best since donning the Maize and Blue.
McGary must continue to stay on the court (aka stay out of foul trouble) against Syracuse in order to help the Wolverines battle in the paint.
Heading to Atlanta
Michigan proved that it has championship grit and determination when it didn’t quit against Kansas. The Wolverines showed against Florida that they have matured, because they came out sharp, aggressive and poised.
But they demonstrated in the second half against the Gators that they are no longer Wolverine cubs.
They kept their foot on the gas and closed out a huge Elite Eight victory without letting Billy Donovan’s gifted squad have a chance to get back into the game.
The Final Four looks promising for a team that is unquestionably playing its best ball of the season and peaking at the best time possible.