Auburn Hills The Wolverines knew they'd need more, more defense, more energy, more points from someone other than their star. They just didn't know they'd need it so soon.
Trey Burke couldn't hit much of anything Thursday night, except the floor on a nasty fall. That was Michigan's biggest fear. And here was its biggest hope, that Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. would make bigger impacts to sustain a longer NCAA Tournament run.
It's only one step, but it's one step farther than the Wolverines went a year ago. They pulled away to beat South Dakota State, 71-56, in a nearly full Palace, and in a strange way, this was something they didn't want to see, but had to see.
With the relative emptiness of Trey, the Wolverines filled up with treys. Robinson III and Hardaway Jr. each scored 21 and combined to shoot 16-for-22, including eight of 10 three-point attempts. That's beyond scorching. That's also what the No. 4 seed is supposed to do to a 13 seed.
But you could tell pretty quickly this was going to be different. The Jackrabbits defense stuck in the paint and gave Burke little room, so he leaned heavily on his teammates, something the Wolverines knew they'd face, sooner or later.
Burke was 2-for-12 and finished with six points, although he added seven assists. He left the court briefly after landing on his left elbow, and returned with it bandaged. He said he was fine afterward, probably because his teammates picked up the slack (and the shots).
Robinson hit all three of his 3-point attempts, after going 1-for-14 the previous 10 games. Not a bad time to bust out, with a pesky band of Jackrabbits making the big Palace crowd nervous.
"I was waiting on this, and I knew the time would come," Robinson said. "I was taking extra reps in practice, and the ball felt great coming out of my hand. This definitely is something we need to realize, that Trey won't be able to score all the time."
It was supposed to be a showdown between Burke and South Dakota State star Nate Wolters, but both defenses made sure that never materialized. Wolters shot 3-for-14 and the defense had something to do with it. The Wolverines held the 3-point-happy Jackrabbits to 4-for-19 long-range shooting, and got a huge energy boost from freshman Mitch McGary.
There were pieces of everything, and more pieces are needed now. John Beilein has craved more defense and balance to carry his team through droughts, and this was an example of it. And you know who liked seeing it as much as anyone? The point guard leader, of course.
"I'm always gonna keep my faith in (Robinson III)," Burke said. "I don't have any doubt in my mind he'll play that way from here on out. I told the guys, 'I need you this time.' Every time I got into the paint, (the Jackrabbits) were forcing me to kick it back out."
A well-disguised blessing? Well, let's wait and see what happens in a tougher game Saturday against Virginia Commonwealth, but Michigan was viewing it that way.
"I noticed halfway through the first half it was gonna be a different night for me," Burke said. "I had to pick and choose. But it helps our confidence, and it helps when teams are scouting us now. They're not gonna focus on one guy, but on the whole team."
Especially when the Wolverines are stretching the floor, hitting nine of 20 3-pointers. The Jackrabbits came in as the feisty upstarts who shot from everywhere, and early on, it was the Wolverines hopping haphazardly. Nerves? That'd make sense, with the nagging reminders of last year's first-round loss to Ohio.
Burke was going about 100 mph, a pace your average Jackrabbit doesn't mind. Since gaining so much national acclaim, he has struggled a bit, as if the attention was wearing. Michigan shadowed Wolters and South Dakota State shadowed Burke. So naturally, that launched a one-on-one showdown between Hardaway Jr. and Brayden Carlson. Huh? Hardaway Jr. is not a surprise, but Carlson was the only Jackrabbit starter not averaging double figures, and he had 16 in the first half.
Who knew South Dakota State would pull a Jackrabbit out of its hat?
Beilein pulled one out too, starting McGary in place of the struggling Jordan Morgan, and the energy infusion was instant. By the time the Wolverines forged a 27-19 lead late in the first half, the fans were up and roaring.
"The crowd was awesome — it definitely helped us," Robinson said. "When we went on runs, or when we started to lag behind, they got us going."
That's what Michigan can do, lift hopes with sudden flashes. Sustaining it is the riddle that still must be solved. After starting the season 20-1, the Wolverines finished 6-6 and were giddy to be released from the Big Ten cage fights.
When they find space to race, they can run past a lot of teams. The Jackrabbits presented a unique challenge and the Wolverines responded in a unique way. They probably don't want to try the low-Trey way again, but at least they know if it happens, they don't have to completely fear it.
Michigan's Trey Burke drives past South Dakota State's Nate Wolters in the first half. Burke had six points and seven assists. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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