Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is one of a handful of players being asked about whether they plan to turn pro after the NCAA Tournament. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Atlanta — It's always about the next step, for programs and players. You have to get to the Sweet 16, then the Elite Eight, then the Final Four, then the championship. You have to cram a college basketball career into a tight window because the next step beckons, prematurely or not.
Michigan players were asked repeatedly and politely about their futures leading up to the championship game against Louisville on Monday night. At times, it seemed necessary because their names have popped up on NBA prospect lists. And at times, it seemed downright unseemly, because what are they supposed to say?
Of course, none would declare their pro ambitions while trying to win an NCAA title and having some fun along the way. Trey Burke nearly left a year ago and has won virtually every player of the year award, so it's almost certain he'll go. Since Mitch McGary has been dominant in the NCAA Tournament, he gets asked more and more, and tries his best to be noncommittal.
This Michigan team is driven by talent and ambition, and has become an example of what John Beilein loves to do — develop players. It's been amazing to behold, and often in these situations, it becomes difficult to hold onto.
If Burke is a top-10 pick, as most experts say, he should leave with no regret. But every other player — Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, McGary — needs to do some serious contemplation before making the leap. This draft class is so weak, everyone seems to think they'll be a first-rounder, and someone surely will get deluded.
The Next Step Obsession gets a bit ridiculous, but it's been part of the college game for a while. It hasn't hurt the appeal of the Tournament, with another 75,000 expected in the Georgia Dome on Monday night.
Beilein was asked if this season would alter the way he recruits, and he essentially said there's not much to alter. His roster isn't loaded with high-ranked prospects, but good talent that has blossomed. That's the upside. I imagine by the April 28 NBA deadline, it might be considered the downside.
"I think if a kid is going to be a guaranteed one-and-doner, we're only recruiting that kid if his dream is to go to Michigan," Beiliein said. "If he's going to go to study hall, class, be a great teammate, we're not going to turn that kid down. At the same point, young men we've recruited right now may have opportunities like that in the future, but they didn't come in with that (idea). They've developed to where they're great prospects."
In other words, you can't help it if players grow more quickly than anticipated, and you can't stop it either. And why would you? Michigan reached the final extensively playing five freshmen and a sophomore.
"You don't know which way to go sometimes, but I'll continue doing the same thing — recruit young men who are going to unpack their bags and say Michigan is not a stopover, but a destination," Beilein said. "And if things work out and they have better opportunities, I'm all for it."
That doesn't make it any easier. Players repeated almost by rote what Burke said the other night about his pro ambitions: "That's something I'll talk to my coaches and family about after the season. It feels great to just be playing on Monday night. That's where my mindset is."
Burke knows he's probably finishing his college career. I think Hardaway Jr. has mulled it a lot, but I'm not so sure about McGary and Robinson III.
The NBA primarily selects players on potential, but understand what that means — it's unrealized potential. The talent is there, but precocious prospects gain a lot more experience in college than sitting on an NBA bench, even if collecting a paycheck.
It doesn't always have to be about the next step, but inevitably, that's where it leads. Early in the Tournament, before the Wolverines took off, I asked Beilein if he was concerned about losing more than one player to the pros.
"I think in today's age, with the transfers and the NBA, you gotta be ready for anything," he said. "At high-level programs, it's almost like you have a junior college mentality and have to retool every two years.
"You can't control it as much as you think. You just try to create a culture where they're playing here for the right reasons, not to up their pro profile. It's part of what all coaches are dealing with. You have coaches who have recruited too well, and gotten themselves fired because they didn't have a roster in a couple years because everybody's in the league. You recruit too low and you're gonna get yourself fired because you don't have good enough players."
It's a delicate dance because everyone — players and coaches — craves the Next Step. Michigan and Beilein are taking it now, and if roster uncertainty is part of the success, they'll live with it.