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November 23, 2012In March of 2004, the Wolverines toppled Rutgers to win the National Invitational Tournament. It was a point of pride, dosed with a grain of reality, for a program that had fallen so far and experienced so much mediocrity since the excitement of the Fab Five.
In November of 2008, the Wolverines snuck into the preseason NIT and upset No. 4 UCLA, 55-52, in the semifinal game. Although Michigan dropped the title game to No. 10 Duke, 71-56, it didn't much matter. It was still a huge win for a program trying to find a footing under second-year coach John Beilein.
Friday, the Wolverines were back in the preseason NIT, and quite a bit has changed over the last few years. No. 4 Michigan waltzed into the illustrious tournament as the obvious favorite - despite having a wealth of talented youth who had yet to be truly tested by stiff competition.
But Michigan lived up to the hype, dominating Kansas State, 71-57, in the championship game Friday afternoon. The Wolverines will carry that momentum into their biggest nonconference game of the season, a Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup with No. 16 North Carolina State next Tuesday at 7:30.
"The way we framed this up this year, was that it was one opportunity," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "When you come to the University of Michigan, you talk a lot about championships. Those who stay will be champions. So when we have a chance to do something like this, we embrace it and go for it, like there were no other games in the season. Our young men did that, and we feel really good about winning this segment of the season. The season is a marathon. This is the first 400 yards of that marathon, but we ran it well."
What's encouraging about the game is that the Wolverines found success while several of their usual scoring avenues were, for some reason or another, plugged up.
For example, sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who suffered two early fouls, did not score in the first half of the game. He finished with season-low 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Burke sat the bench for about six minutes in the opening half - but the offense didn't slow down, thanks to the relief play of freshman point guard Spike Albrecht, who finished with just three points but piloted the offense well while Burke was out.
"It used to be very concerning when we had fouls like that, but it wasn't concerning at all, tonight," Beilein said. "Burke had the two early fouls, but we had a lot of confidence in Spike. We haven't always had this luxury of having the extra big guy or point guard to help us. We know when we turn to the bench, we have guys that can get in there.
"Spike was in there, in this environment, and didn't blink. Did any of you kind of just shake your head when he pulled up and hit that three? We do it all the time in practice. He looks like an altar boy, and he's out there playing in Madison Square Garden like he has done it his whole life."
And the Wolverines, who came into the game shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range (37-of-81), did not find many open looks from behind the arc. In their first four games, they made an average of 9.2 3-point shots (27.7 points per game). Against the Wildcats, Michigan was just 4-of-12 from beyond the stripe.
And yet, the offense hummed all game long, The Wolverines shot 53.7 percent from the field, led by junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., who scored a game-high 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Hardaway added seven rebounds.
"The biggest thing is his work habits," Beilein said. "That [transformation] doesn't just happen. Obviously, he has great DNA. But that doesn't get you there alone. You have to have great work habits. That young man is in the gym all the time, working on all the things he's trying to develop."
There was a scary moment for Hardaway in the final minutes of the game, when he dove for a loose ball and knocked the back of his head against the knee of a Kansas State player.
Hardaway was visibly woozy when he got to his feet, his eyes wide and his gait shaky. Hardaway was taken into the locker room.
After the game, Beilein said Hardaway "seemed fine" when he talked to him, and, according to the team doctor, the guard passed concussion tests and will fly home with the team.
On the defensive end, Michigan held the Wildcats to 36.7 percent shooting. But Kansas State collected 11 offensive rebounds, leading to second-chance scoring opportunities.
The Wildcats are averaging 20 second-chance points per game this season and got 12 against the Wolverines.
"I think if we win this game last year, it's probably very close, because they probably would have gotten a lot more putbacks," Beilein said. "It's important that we limit those opportunities, especially against teams like this - like a lot of Big Ten teams do - that really rely on offensive rebounding. It's a great strategy, and we haven't been able to do that in the past, but we're doing pretty well now, blocking out on defense and getting our own offensive rebounds."