April 8, 2013 at 5:48 pm

John Niyo

Jon Horford knows secret to Michigan's success, and it's nothing, really

Atlanta — Everyone always wants to know the secret. To success. To life. To recipes.

And, yes, even to winning basketball games.

But here inside the Georgia Dome, where tonight a crowd of more than 75,000 screaming fans will gather for "One Shining Moment" and way too many extended TV timeouts, Jon Horford — Michigan's resident philosopher king — wanted a few of us gathered around his locker Sunday afternoon to know the real secret to his team's surprising NCAA Tournament success.

"We're not trying to do anything special," the sophomore forward explained. "But we're not trying to stop it, either. We're basically doing nothing. But everything's happening."

He paused to let that whisper of wisdom linger in the air a while before continuing, well aware that the Tao of Sportswriting generally relies on box scores, not books — on coaching cliches, instead of ancient Chinese texts.

Of course, Horford will be the first to tell you his teammates tend to look at him a bit cross-eyed when he gets going like this. He can talk to assistant coach Bacari Alexander about the natural law or Wu Wei. But the rest of the guys in that locker room? Even the Academic All-Big Ten players like Matt Vogrich? Quite naturally, Horford admits, the answer is, "No way."

"Yeah," Vogrich laughed, "he's a mystical dude."

All and nothing

But, dude, if you listen closely enough, you'll understand exactly what he's saying, and maybe just why this young Michigan team is still playing in the second week of April.

It's the NBA-caliber talent, sure, from an All-America point guard in Trey Burke to an overnight sensation in center Mitch McGary. It's the coaching, too, from John Beilein's meticulous preparation to Alexander's goofy pregame speeches. And it's certainly the dedication, from freshman Caris LeVert's 1 a.m. shooting sessions at Crisler Center — Saturday, it finally paid off — to all the pizza and burgers a slimmed-down McGary left uneaten this winter.

It's all of that, and more. But it's also none of it, Horford insists.

"It's an interesting way to think about things," he said. "Because people associate nothing with being lazy. But that's not the case at all. Nothing is a misunderstood word. We're doing nothing. Or as Lao Tzu would say, we're doing nothing, but we're leaving nothing undone."

They are, indeed. And it's refreshing, isn't it, in a year that has seen too much coaching and not enough scoring — not enough basketball, I'd argue — to see these two teams as the last ones standing? Louisville with its in-your-face pressure defense and up-tempo style, and Michigan with its multi-faceted offense and open-court flair.

"A lot of teams, when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who'll try tonight to become the first Division I coach to win a national title at two different schools. "But you have fun watching Michigan play basketball, the way they pass, cut, shoot. … They're fun to watch."

'Magic mojo'

And watching them have fun in this Tournament run, it's easy to see why the players are enjoying themselves. Winning's fun, and fun is winning, whether it's Corey Person's pregame dance choreography or Nik Stauskas' "three-goggles" or McGary's primal screams on the bench.

"Coach B, he's always been a players' coach," Burke said. "He tells you to play within the system, but don't be mechanical, robotic. Be a player."

Be yourself. Just don't be selfish about it. And in this moment, in this spotlight — "the biggest game of our lives," McGary said Sunday — be sure you don't forget what it is that got you here. That's what Horford is trying to say, even if his teammates are too busy laughing to hear him.

"Just allow things to flow and not interfere with that," Horford said. "I feel that it makes all the difference."

What's been the difference for this Michigan team lately? McGary's development, obviously. The emergence of some of the lesser-known freshmen, too. Escaping those all-too-familiar Big Ten foes certainly helps. And a team meeting after that embarrassing loss at Penn State in late February helped clear the air and set a new standard of accountability in the locker room.

But there's something else at work here in this team's play — confident, exuberant, and yet remarkably calm. Down 10 with 2 minutes to play in the Sweet 16 against top-seeded Kansas? Up by a point with 40 seconds to play and the roof about to cave in Saturday night against Syracuse? No worries.

"It's some magic mojo," Horford said.

"I have no idea what it is. But it's special. It's special."

And they'd be wise not to mess with it, whatever it is. Best to do nothing, if they hope to leave nothing undone tonight.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michigan is keeping it simple in its quest for a national title, said sophomore forward Jon Horford. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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