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April 1, 2013
Hoops Notebook: Tough enough for the Final Four
Michigan's offense hasn't been much of a question mark in 2012-13, especially against non-conference foes. Several, though, wrote the Wolverines off as a serious Final Four contender because of a lack of toughness and defense.
That's probably to be expected of a team with five freshmen playing significant minutes, but it hasn't stopped some from playing the "John Beilein is about offense only" card. The Wolverines have been paying attention to the naysayers, sophomore point guard Trey Burke said after Michigan's 79-59 win over Florida, and came out strong on the defensive end to prove a point.
"This team has faced a lot of adversity this year, and a lot of people doubted us to get to this point," he said. "A lot of people said we were too young, we weren't tough enough, but I definitely think that's why we played with a chip on our shoulder over the last couple of weeks."
That chip allowed them to overcome their only poor defensive performance of the tournament, an 87-85 win over Kansas in which Burke willed the Wolverines back in the final five minutes. It was then, following Burke's 27-footer to send it into overtime and U-M's improbable win, that they knew they needed to step it up on the other end of the floor to advance.
"I guess just after that game we were saying, 'God has something in store for us going to the next game," Hardaway said. "[Against Florida] everybody just played tremendously on the defensive end. We didn't even worry about offense - we knew that would come. Defensively, everybody was locking down the defenders, getting stops, getting rebounds. We were just running and gunning and having fun. That's what we're best at. If we continue to do that, we should go really far."
The only place left to go, though, is to the national title game, and it will take a great showing on both ends - in both games - to win it. U-M was able to compensate for Hardaway's 3-for-13 night against the Gators, but they'll likely need more from him to beat Syracuse Saturday and, most likely, Louisville the following Monday.
It's not every night freshman Nik Stauskas will go 6-for-6, after all.
They're at their very best, though, when they're getting looks in transition as well as the half court. That starts with defense, Beilein said, and always will.
"What this team has learned during the year is that their defense is their best offense," he said. "We had 20 transition points in the first half, and that all comes off our defense. When we were having defense lapses during the year, there was usually just one or two guys - usually some of the players that are learning the game at such a high rate for freshmen - maybe would step away, or maybe not ready to step in there. Our defense is everybody's offense, if you buy into it and play it."
If they do, the run, fun and gun will continue, he said.
"Our numbers haven't been where we want to be in the future, but if it got us to this point, our offense helps a lot," Beilein added. "The talent we have on offense helps a lot, as well. It's always been about defense.
"Then it's just put your foot on the gas, and don't stop. We had 20 transition points. You don't get that by slowing it down. We didn't do as good a job as we did in the first half of finding the right shot, but there was no doubt in your mind we had to keep pushing as much as we can. The fact we had fatigue, though, we needed to slow things down and get some rest. This game today, their three point shooting ability, that game is never safe, and it ain't over until that baby is over, so we wanted to make sure they kept being aggressive."
On both ends of the court, too, a lesson that finally seems to be registering at the right time.
"The stomach problems before the Kansas game, that wasn't bothering me [Sunday]," Burke said. "My upper back spasmed up a little bit today. I'm just going to get therapy on it this week, get it checked out and get a lot of rest. I'll be ready for next weekend. It didn't affect us today."
Erik had a very, very difficult game," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "And I feel bad for him being a senior, considering what he's done throughout his career. We went to him early there, to start the game against Robinson. We felt like there was a size advantage and we could get some stuff there, and he just never could really get it going."
"Having been in the Big East there are a lot of Big East coaches that would agree with me that no, we don't know what to expect from that Syracuse zone," Beilein said. "Marquette has played against it a few times, as well.
"It's unique, because you don't see it that often. Coach [Jim] Boeheim is a master at teaching that, keeping his guys fresh, having good players that really play it well. We'll look for answers, as many answers as we can find, but you've got to play a good game. When you get open shots you need to make them to beat them, and that will be our plan."
Donovan credited Michigan with a "terrific" game on both ends of the floor.
"I think because they're so good offensively, because of Burke and because they space the floor and they have Hardaway and Stauskas - and even Robinson is good enough in terms of putting it down - they don't get enough credit defensively," he said. "They're a good defensive team. I wouldn't say they're a great defensive team, but they're good. They're a good, solid defensive team.
"But what you're going to have to do against Syracuse is you have to make some shots. Stauskas, if he goes 0-for-6, it's a different game, so if you're going to play against Syracuse, you're going to have to make some shots. McGary is not a guy you throw the ball to and post him up. Everything he gets is off of Burke, and when Burke shoots out of pick and rolls, he always has a free run to go offensive rebound. But they're not throwing the ball to McGary and he's working his way around the basket - he's the recipient. He plays that role great. Some of that is going to be taken away, where you're going to have to knock down some shots over the top."