In Arlington, Michigan looks for first Elite Eight berth since 1994

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 28, 2013

ARLINGTON, Texas — When the Michigan men’s basketball team takes the floor on Friday against top-seeded Kansas, it’ll be attempting to advance to the Elite Eight, which no other Wolverine team has done since 1994.

It’ll also attempt to reverse the fortune of a different Michigan team from earlier this school year: The football team, which was blown out in a 41-14 season-opening loss to Alabama in a highly publicized game at Cowboy Stadium.

None of that mattered when the Wolverines — many holding cameras — took the court, positioned above the football turf’s famed midfield silver and blue star, in Thursday’s practice.

“Just walking out was definitely an experience for all of us,” said sophomore point guard Trey Burke. “I mean, who wouldn’t take pictures coming out into the Dallas stadium?”

Added freshman point guard Spike Albrecht: “Honestly, it was surreal. You walk in there and you see the jumbotron up there bigger than the court, and you just take a step back and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, I’m playing in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium.’ ”

Burke and Albecht weren’t alone in their awe for the field, either. Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III joked that the stadium was so big, players would need to use the buddy system in order to not get lost. But after making their way onto the court, the players had another order of business to attend to.

Cowboy Stadium is using a raised floor. While that alone is sometimes enough to throw shooters’ depth perceptions off, the stadium is so expansive, especially compared to typical arenas, that it can play mind games with players attempting to shoot from distance.

But after a 50-minute practice, many of the Wolverines (12-6 Big Ten, 28-7 overall) were skeptical that it would have any affect on the game.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Burke said. “I think that’s just mental. I don’t think it’s really different. The rims are the same, the ball is the same size, so it’s all about your mentality.”

Freshman guard Nik Stauskas acknowledged that for a few minutes, he struggled to find his stroke, but after adjusting, said it was fine.

“I was out there hitting shots, and I said, ‘It’s a great shooter’s gym,’ ” Stauskas said.

And Michigan’s ability to shoot the 3-ball could determine the outcome of Friday’s game with the Jayhawks (14-4 Big 12, 31-5). At just under four blocks per game — with a host of additional altered shots — Kansas’ seven-foot center Jeff Withey makes scoring inside the paint tough for his opponents.

“You run a beautiful play, it couldn't be run better, and he somehow blocks the shot,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It can be very deflating to a team.”

Robinson compared the Jayhawks front line to that of a Big Ten team, specifically comparing them to Michigan State in the way they crash the boards.

That’s why redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford explained that controlling the defensive glass and limiting Kansas’ second-chance opportunities is the key to winning.

“Kansas lives off that stuff,” Horford said. “A miss and they just grab it, put it in, grab it, kick it out for a three. We’ve got to stop all of that.”

With 8.4 rebounds per game, Withey leads a deep and talented group of big men, while the Jayhawks’ back court is led by second-team All-American guard Ben McLemore, who led the team with 16.4 points per game. The freshman can score in a variety of ways, both by attacking the rim and shooting from long range, but has struggled in the tournament. He missed all nine of his field-goal attempts in a come-from-behind win over North Carolina on Sunday, while seven of his 11 points came from the free-throw line as Kansas eeked out a win over 16th-seeded Western Kentucky in the previous round.

Still, a team full of inexperienced players like Michigan — most of its freshmen were just months old when the Wolverines last reached the Sweet Sixteen — has to be wary of a veteran squad like the Jayhawks. Besides McLemore, Kansas’ four other starters are seniors making their third run in the tournament, including last year, when it lost in the NCAA Championship game to Kentucky, 67-59.

Beilein noted that this Kansas team has “seen it all.”

Though last year’s team did have a different makeup — it lost its two leading scorers, including All-American Thomas Robinson, to the NBA — the Jayhawks won’t be rattled by Friday’s big-game atmosphere.

That doesn’t scare Horford, who says that unlike last year, Michigan is relaxed and composed.

“In the tournament last year, I don’t know what it was, just as a team, there was a weird feeling,” Horford said, noting that it wasn’t about being unprepared, but about being too uptight and pressured. “Don’t complicate things. Just understand it’s just a game, it’s literally just a game of basketball.”