Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and Michigan received a bit of luck by opening their NCAA Tournament run at The Palace. (Sheila Springsteen/Special to Detroit News)
Ann Arbor -- No relief from the heat. For the Wolverines, the pressure of lofty rankings and a relentlessly rugged Big Ten season is over. And now all that remains is one more sweaty chance to prove they're truly as good as they sometimes look.
Michigan didn't catch many breaks with its NCAA Tournament draw, although it got one biggie — opening in Auburn Hills. The Wolverines' No. 4 seed made that a bit uncertain, but they join the Spartans there for Thursday's games, and if a rebound beckons, it's always best to start close to home.
So, does a rebound beckon? When you have one of the nation's premier playmakers in Trey Burke, you have a shot. But Burke needs help, and the Wolverines need to unburden themselves and unleash the passion they showed early in the season.
As always in the Tournament, much depends on matchups, and Michigan faces some unusual ones. If it gets past South Dakota State, then possibly VCU, it likely would face Kansas, as scary a Sweet 16 draw as you can get. But the way the Wolverines figure it, if they survived the Big Ten's bulls, they should feel free to run with the Jackrabbits now. That's the high-scoring, 3-point-shooting South Dakota State Jackrabbits, led by superb guard Nate Wolters.
"We're not really out there, not getting the exposure we were getting at the beginning of the year," Burke said. "I definitely think a lot of people have us in their brackets as a team that can get upset. I think that's motivation, and we'll use it to our advantage. This team has matured a lot, and I think we're ready to make a run."
This was an understated bracket night at the Crisler Center, without the giddy excitement of a team new to the stage. The Wolverines know where they've been — ranked as high as No. 1 — and where some think they're headed, going 6-6 down the stretch.
They're 26-7 and nearly nabbed a share of the Big Ten title, but there's still repair work going on. John Beilein spent a decent portion of Sunday night reminding everyone of the accomplishments, and he's right. But there's a nagging sense because of a few tough losses, and repeated defensive breakdowns, that this Michigan team is at a fork, in desperate need of a dagger. OK, beyond the cutlery analogies, the Wolverines are trying to recapture the swagger they showed during their 16-0 start.
"We're used to playing with a lot of pressure on us," Beilein said. "This team has been playing to stay in the top 10 all year, and they've carried that as well as any team in the country. I think we've been through this enough where we will play to win."
The perception is, the Wolverines played not to lose last year in the Tournament, when they also were a No. 4 seed facing a 13 seed with a dynamic guard. Ohio and D.J. Cooper stunned Michigan 65-60, and that's a handy reference point when questioning this year's team.
It's not completely fair, but it'll be there until the Wolverines make a long Tournament run. Michigan hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since 1994. Beilein is 2-3 in the Tournament in six seasons here, and hasn't had a team nearly as good as this one.
Everybody knows the Tournament features small names with big games, and there's no way Michigan is looking past anything or anyone now. Burke said he hadn't seen Wolters play, but by the time you read this, I imagine the Wolverines will know all about the 6-foot-4 senior guard, who averages 22.5 points and is considered an NBA prospect.
"We play well against high-scoring teams, so that plays to our advantage," Burke said. "Our defense has improved, but it's not where it needs to be. If we're able to get out in transition, we get better opportunities than when teams slow it down."
Michigan's All-America sophomore guard can't do it all, and Burke will need more assistance from shooters Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
The Wolverines' interior weaknesses were exposed late in the Big Ten season, although freshman Mitch McGary has added some punch.
The pressure seemed to wear on the Wolverines at times, perhaps starting with the glow of the No. 1 ranking. And it'll be there Thursday at The Palace against a 25-9 South Dakota State team that's legitimately dangerous, a disciplined team that doesn't turn the ball over or miss many free throws.
The flip side is, the Jackrabbits have lost to Hofstra and Cal State Bakersfield. And the Wolverines have beaten Michigan State and Ohio State, and need to remember how they did it. Burke returned this season instead of jumping to the NBA for precisely this moment. It's generally accepted he'll leave after this run, but that's not on his mind now.
"This is what I came back to school for," Burke said. "We have to stay in the moment, just try to think about South Dakota State. That's how teams get beat, when they look ahead."
The Wolverines aren't looking ahead now. Perhaps just as important, they're not looking back, either.
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