Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke shoots over teammate Jordan Morgan during practice Thursday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Arlington, Texas — It was a moment that required a snapshot, a scene for wide eyes and broad ambitions. This is how it looks when you go somewhere you've never gone.
Michigan players snapped away on camera phones as they walked onto the floor in the middle of Cowboys Stadium Thursday, and who could blame them? On the gigantic scoreboard was a gigantic Block M, thus confirming that everything indeed is bigger in Texas.
It hasn't been this big for Michigan in a long time, 19 years to be exact. But if the Wolverines are a bit awestruck, they're limiting it to random photos. This is the biggest challenge yet to the audacity of youth, as Michigan faces top-seeded, senior-laden Kansas in the Sweet 16 tonight.
"I mean, who wouldn't take pictures coming out and playing in this stadium?" sophomore star Trey Burke said. "Especially in this environment, you never know if you're gonna be back. But I think we're playing our best basketball. We're comfortable out there again."
Few teams make an opponent feel more uncomfortable than Kansas, with its 7-foot shot-blocker, Jeff Withey. And truly, if experience is the deciding factor, it's already over. The Jayhawks start four seniors who played in the national title game last year, a 67-59 loss to Kentucky. Based on various statistical measures, Michigan is the youngest team in the Big Ten and eighth-youngest in the country, without a senior in its rotation.
Hmm. Sounds like another talented Michigan team from a couple decades ago, the first to attack the notion of waiting your turn. The Fab Five still exist in spirit and lore, if not officially in the rafters of the Crisler Center. In fact, one of the players spoke this week to a class attended by the five current freshmen.
Growing up fast
The message from Jimmy King was less about history and more about audacity. Go for it. Have fun. Don't be intimidated.
"It definitely had an effect on us," Glenn Robinson III said. "I talk to Jalen (Rose) too, and we've seen the documentary. It gives us more of a chip on our shoulder to go out there and prove to the world we can turn things around."
Burke practically qualifies as grizzled on this team, and he has senior qualities in one sense — he's likely headed to the pros. Beyond the backcourt of Burke and junior Tim Hardaway Jr., three of Michigan's top five scorers are freshmen, from Robinson III to Nik Stauskas to Mitch McGary. Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht also play key roles.
Nobody — repeat, NOBODY — is comparing their talent to the Fab Five. The relevant comparison is, Michigan is back on the raised stage for the first time since 1994.
"I definitely don't feel like a freshman, and our teammates don't treat us like freshmen," said Robinson III, who was 15-for-19 in two victories at The Palace. "I think we've grown up. We can't have any more freshman mistakes, freshman excuses, anything like that."
Experience is something inexperienced teams say is overblown, and experienced teams say is paramount. So bear that in mind when you listen to Kansas senior forward Kevin Young, with his unintentionally ironic last name.
"We have four seniors who know this could be our last game," Young said. "Just trying to fight to stay alive, it means a lot more. We know what to expect from the lights (of bigger stadiums), but at the end of the day, it's just a basketball court."
Handling the pressure
Cowboys Stadium is configured to hold about 42,000 fans, with the highest tiers curtained off. John Beilein was concerned about the shooting background, but he's not concerned about youthful indiscretions.
The Wolverines generally commit few turnovers, but defense is where young players struggle. Beilein knew that would be the test back in November, when he and his staff decided not to redshirt LeVert and go all in with the freshmen. There were slumps, naturally, but now Robinson and McGary are playing their best basketball.
"In Auburn Hills, we only had two guys play significantly that had ever played in an NCAA Tournament game," Beilein said. "It was all new to them, and the next step is all new to them. They're unusual kids in that they don't seem fazed by a lot of the hype, or by this arena. Now, that could be different (tonight). In the moment, they might not always have handled it well, but they've always bounced back."
Michigan's freshman class was expected to be good, but outside of McGary, it wasn't considered elite. Just as Burke developed quickly, so have Robinson III and others. Kansas counters with size, age and defense, as well as a daunting backcourt of 6-5 freshman Ben McLemore and 6-6 senior Travis Releford.
It's good for the Wolverines to soak it all in, without losing sight of the goal. As their practice ended Thursday, McGary lifted up the 5-11 Albrecht so he could dunk, and the players cheered. As snapshots go, it was a perfect one, maybe not even the final one.
Comparing the experience of the starting lineups for Michigan and Kansas:
Glenn Robinson III, freshman
Mitch McGary, freshman
Tim Hardaway Jr., junior
Trey Burke, sophomore
Nik Stauskas, freshman
Kevin Young, senior
Jeff Withey, senior
Travis Releford, senior
Elijah Johnson, senior
Ben McLemore, freshman