April 6, 2013 at 2:33 am

Bob Wojnowski

'Why not us?' becomes Michigan's mantra en route to NCAA Final Four

Atlanta -- This was always the plan, although not exactly. The Wolverines had the talent, if not the experience. They had the star, but maybe not the stamina. They had the striking offense, but not the stifling defense.

Michigan is in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years, facing Syracuse tonight, and suddenly the program's second national championship is a legitimate possibility, several weeks after it was a vague notion.

Sometimes to gain perspective, it's necessary to lose it. When the Wolverines were 16-0 and ranked No. 1 on Jan. 13, no one would have been surprised if they ended up in Atlanta. But the toughest thing for a team with five freshmen in the rotation is the lack of reference points. The best thing is, there's so much room to grow.

The odds got better as the field got smaller, and now Michigan's chances are right back where they were, with players and coaches are asking "why not us?"

"I tried to tell the media at the beginning of the year we had the team to get to Atlanta, and people thought I was crazy," sophomore point guard Trey Burke said. "There were a lot of times we were really down on ourselves after losing games. So coming into the Tournament, we wanted to make a statement from day one."

The truth is, losses hurt. The other truth is, losses help.

Losses a blessing

Michigan is 30-7 and there's nothing fluky about it. John Beilein put together a versatile, cohesive team with underrated pieces that mesh superbly. Burke is so good, he makes others better. Very quickly this season, the standards were raised, which made the slips so painful.

Almost every team in college basketball hits a rough patch and the Wolverines hit one as rough as any, 6-6 down the stretch of a brutal Big Ten season. It's as if everyone forgot who they were — still talented and still led by Burke, but now smarting from the sting.

"Every one of our seven losses was a blessing in disguise, in some way," Beilein said. "When I say adversity makes you better, it still hurts inside when a guy throws in a half-court shot, or you go to Michigan State and get drilled. But it really toughened up this team. The Big Ten schedule was a great indicator of how difficult the league is and the areas we had to improve. But after a 20-1 start, losing hits you harder, and it gets taken out of proportion."

In a team meeting Feb. 20, Beilein showed video highlights of Michigan players hustling and rebounding and defending. He showed how energized they looked earlier, and he began to pound the mantra: Why not us?

"All of us had to say, we can still do this," Beilein said. "Duke was getting beat, Kansas was losing three in a row, everybody was getting beat. I just said, somebody's going to win it, why can't it be us?"

It's a common refrain. Three teams in the Final Four — Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State — didn't win their conference regular season or tournament. Only Louisville did.

But it's hard to imagine any top team suffering such crushers as Michigan. It fell at Ohio State, 56-53, when Burke's final 3-point attempt went halfway down, then popped out. It lost at Wisconsin, 65-62, in overtime after Ben Brust's 3-pointer from near midcourt tied it at the buzzer. It blew a 15-point lead and lost at previously winless Penn State.

Then it fell at home to Indiana in the regular-season finale, 72-71, when Burke and others missed free throws and a five-point lead in the final minute disappeared. In the closing seconds, Jordan Morgan's rebound shot circled the rim, hung agonizingly and dropped off, and a Big Ten title was gone.

Beilein did his best coaching shortly thereafter. Michigan still looked sluggish in the Big Ten tournament and slipped to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was the worst time to slide, and the perfect time to change. Beilein inserted feisty freshman center Mitch McGary in the lineup and Michigan opened the Tournament by blasting South Dakota State and Virginia Commonwealth at The Palace.

From there, the highlights and spotlights have piled up. Burke hit the incredible 30-footer to tie Kansas, cap one of the great comebacks in Tournament history and spark the overtime victory. The 79-59 stomping of Florida was a graphic exercise in exorcising, as Michigan unleashed what it does well, shooting and running.

Task is tall, but …

The parts are in place, from the orchestrator Burke to the burly McGary to the shooting-slashing trio of Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. Syracuse presents the biggest obstacle yet with its famed 2-3 zone, and Jim Boeheim calls this the best defense he's ever had.

The Orange is so tall — guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche are 6-foot-6 and 6-4 — it'll be difficult for even the Wolverines' deep shooters to find open space. In practice, Beilein put 6-10 reserve Blake McLimans on the perimeter to simulate the challenge.

But Michigan is here for a reason, the same one Burke saw in the summer, the same one many of us saw in the winter.

"I knew we had all the pieces we'd been missing," Burke said. "Zack Novak was one of our toughest players and our best leader, but he was an undersized forward. We had Glenn Robinson coming in at 6-6, along with Mitch in the frontcourt. I definitely could see us getting where we are now."

The Final Four doesn't have to be the end.

No. 1 Louisville possibly beckons Monday night. After making it here, the Wolverines don't have to convince anyone — including themselves — they can make it all the way there.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Michigan coach John Beilein has seen his team overcome difficult losses, including a lopsided affair against Michigan State, to reach the Final Four. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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