By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 22, 2012
NEW YORK — In the Michigan basketball team’s last Madison Square Garden preseason tournament appearance, the Wolverines pulled off a stunning upset of then-No. 4 UCLA in the 2008 2K Sports Classic. This year, Michigan is the team with the target on its back, and after a late-game surge propelled the fourth-ranked Wolverines past Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, Kansas State will try to play role reversal and knock them off in the NIT Season Tip-Off final.
For the tournament favorite to stay unbeaten on the year, Michigan (4-0) will need to beat a familiar foe on the opposing bench. Bruce Weber took over the Wildcats in the off-season after Illinois fired him last spring. Kansas State held off a surprisingly competitive Delaware squad, 66-63, in Wednesday’s semifinal to advance to the final.
“Kansas State is a great team and they do a great job at getting offensive rebounds, just like Pitt, and they’re hungry,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “Everybody’s going to give us their best game because they know that we’re ranked and we’ve just got to prepare and be ready for any possibility that they throw at us.”
It was Hardaway who picked up the Wolverines after a sluggish first half — the first time Michigan has entered halftime trailing. Visiting New York City for the first time, Hardaway paced the Wolverines with 16 points, despite shooting just 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
Though Hardaway struggled early, the atmosphere he faced wasn’t quite like the one his father, former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway Sr., faced during his NBA days as a bitter rival to the hometown Knicks.
“I heard some boos when my name was called in the starting lineup a little bit,” Hardaway Jr. said, laughing. “Having the opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden on the court is a blessing and we’ve just got to do a great job at just keeping our composure and limiting distractions.”
Keeping distractions to a minimum should be easy thanks to the large Michigan fan base in the New York area. As the Wolverines mounted their second-half comeback, the Garden turned into an East Coast version of Crisler Center, giving Michigan a home atmosphere it expects again on Friday.
In the closing minute of the game, the arena was even filled with a chorus of "Beat Ohio" chants.
“Whenever we’ve come to New York … we’ve really felt the Michigan presence here,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I didn’t know how many (fans) were there (but) I knew as soon as they said the Michigan name.”
Sophomore guard Trey Burke turned the ball over six times and missed each of his four 3-point attempts despite scoring a game-high 17 points, and with Hardaway and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III also sputtering in the first half, Beilein turned to his vaunted, but seldom-used 1-3-1 zone defense, stifling the Panthers. Beilein acknowledged that he was slightly hesitant to the employ the defense because of the youth on the floor, but said that his freshmen possess lethal length and athleticism that former guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak didn’t have.
The Wildcats (5-0) have yet to play a BCS-conference opponent, with their biggest test of the season coming in Wednesday’s three-point victory over the unranked Blue Hens.
Kansas State relies on a balanced offense that depends on a score-by-committee approach. Three Wildcats, guards Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling and forward Thomas Gipson, tied for a team-lead with 12 points on Wednesday. Rodriguez leads the team with 11.2 points per game, while just one other player averages double figures.
The Wildcats are vying for preseason tournament championships in back-to-back years, after winning the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic last year. The Wolverines will look to capture the program’s first NIT Season Tip-Off championship. Michigan had never previously won a Preseason NIT game in the Garden.
But opportunities to play for championships on big stages like Friday are the reason why freshman guard Nik Stauskas, who scored 15 points Wednesday, said he came to play at Michigan.
“I think we live for moments like this as basketball players,” Stauskas said.