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SportsMonday Column: A toast to the champions

Alden Reiss/Daily
Freshman guard Trey Burke has filled in at point guard as a true freshman for Michigan, averaging 14.5 points and 4.8 assists per game during the regular season. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 4, 2012

BUFFALO WILD WINGS — Armed with vitality and courage to burn, a middle-aged man slowly lifted his amber ale.

“Cheers,” he began.

His voice dripped with brazen confidence, rising above the clamor to silence the table. His comrades turned toward the head of the table and reached for their glasses.

“Cheers to Michigan — we're Big Ten champions,” he said.

The man could have been an entrepreneur. He could have been a professor. He could have been a doctor. But tonight, he was a Michigan basketball fan, dressed in his maize hoodie with “Michigan” splashed across the chest with boldness that matched his voice.

The confidence had been brewing since an early-season upset against then-No. 8 Memphis at the Maui Invitational. It bubbled over on Sunday evening.

Earlier in the afternoon, with one step-back dagger from Ohio State’s William Buford in East Lansing, Michigan catapulted alongside the Spartans and Buckeyes for a three-way share of the Big Ten regular-season title — the Wolverines’ first conference championship since 1986.

Had Ohio State not knocked off the first-place Spartans at the Breslin Center on Sunday, there never would have been a three-way split for the championship. There never would have been a toast at Buffalo Wild Wings.

I imagine our friend would have found himself back at the corner of State and Washington anyway, but he would have found a corner stool at the bar. With his saturnine face and watchful eyes, he would have been left alone.

But Buford drilled it. Electrified, the man clambered out of his stupor to extol the Wolverines. He, too, felt like he was — at long last — a champion.

So he toasted to Michigan. You should too. Lift the glass, I’ll lead the way.

Here’s to you, Trey Burke.

Without Burke patrolling the point, Michigan would have been nowhere near contention for the conference championship.

To merely say there was pressure on the guard would be an injustice. Burke was tasked with running Michigan coach John Beilein’s complex offense as a true freshman — and he’d be filling in for star Darius Morris, who bolted for the NBA following his sophomore season.

Instead of folding, Burke proved his mettle. Averaging 14.5 points and 4.8 assists, his statistics sit a small step behind last season’s Morris (15.0 points, 6.7 assists). But he’s a floor general that fits for Michigan.

Here’s to you, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.

This duo won’t soon be forgotten. They might have penned the screenplay for True Grit. (Sorry, Joel and Ethan Coen.)

Overlooked and under the radar, Novak and Douglass found their way to Ann Arbor and worked to win the hearts of Michigan fans. Despite being a program under construction in a state painted green by powerhouse Michigan State, Novak and Douglass trumpeted the values of Beilein’s curriculum on and off the court.

The senior captains’ final regular season could be justly billed as justified.

The pair of Indiana natives who were passed over by hometown schools fought tooth and nail to bring Michigan basketball back to Crisler Center.

And Michigan basketball, headlined by its two captains, finished 15-1 at home.

Here’s to you, John Beilein.

Beilein commands attention. He’s not as boisterous, dynamic or memorable as many coaches across the nation, but few can stand toe-to-toe with him. His track record speaks for itself.

A Big Ten Championship shouldn’t have come so soon. He lost his touted guard in Morris and opened the year starting a senior, three sophomores and a freshman. That’s not a lineup that would be expected to contend for a championship in the toughest conference in college basketball.

Beilein is a teacher at heart. And he’s an educator that knows his trade down to an expert level. He’s taken two Michigan teams into the second round of the NCAA Tournament, what’s to say he can’t do more this time?

Back at Buffalo Wild Wings, a trio of students plunked down at a table beside the toasting troupe. It wasn’t clear, but an educated guess pegged them as engineers.

“We needed Ohio to beat Michigan State,” one of them commented, carefully eschewing the name Ohio State. As filthy as it felt, Michigan fans were left to root for a Buckeye win on Sunday — or a Michigan State loss, as some said.

Buford’s game-winner was a thrill, and he was a savior. Then, cheering just felt wrong.

But it was for the good of Michigan. A whirlwind Sunday ended in the best possible way. It ended in a toast.

So here’s to Michigan. Here’s to the champions.

Thanks for making believers of us all.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.


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