AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Even with the Big Ten Player of the Year, sophomore Trey Burke, at its helm, the Michigan men’s basketball team was a rather popular pick to be upset by South Dakota State in its first NCAA Tournament game.
The upset predictions, issued from several national television analysts, came in spite of Burke’s regular-season effectiveness, but the All-American was held to just six points on 2-of-12 shooting and missed a stretch of the game after injuring his elbow and tailbone. To replace Burke’s production, a pair of freshmen forwards, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, stepped up, willing the Wolverines to a 71-56 win.
Robinson, along with junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., scored a game-high 21 points on an efficient 8-for-9 shooting, both matching career highs. He connected on all three of his 3-pointers to go along with six rebounds, after scoring just four points in the first half.
McGary, starting in place of struggling redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan, gave Michigan an immediate spark it had been missing of late, scoring the team’s first five points and finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds.
“I didn’t have any jitters, first-game-in-the-NCAA (Tournament) jitters or anything like that,” McGary said. “It’s still the same game of basketball, so I just tried to stay modest with it. I was having fun out there.”
Relying on production from freshmen in the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament can be risky. Even after their impressive rookie campaigns, Robinson and McGary made a statement to Burke on Thursday night.
“That’s what everyone says, but these guys — that’s the type of players we have,” Buke said. “It’s really big because it gives not just me confidence, but it gives them confidence going into the next game. It allows them to go into the next game knowing, ‘Hey, this is a really big stage, but this is what we’re made for.’ ”
Robinson said playing in the Big Dance was “a crazy thing to think about,” but as soon as he started knocking down baskets, he felt like he did a few months ago, when he was winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards.
“I got confidence and I was in some type of groove I was in earlier in the season and it just felt good,” he said. “The ball felt great coming out of my hands.”
SURVIVE AND ADVANCE: The Wolverines’ youth, inexperience and recent struggles — they were 6-6 in their previous 12 games before Thursday — weren’t the only reasons many brackets nationwide had the Jackrabbits moving on to the Round of 32.
Michigan’s upset loss to Ohio in last year’s NCAA Tournament was fresh on everyone’s mind, including the Wolverines themselves. Several players said that last year’s loss was talked about throughout the week, and senior guard Josh Bartelstein, the team’s captain, said that “the first win is always the hardest.”
“We had a lot of respect for (last year’s team), but this year’s team was totally focused on how do we win this game,” Bartelstein said. “There’s upsets that happen every year in March Madness, that’s what makes it great, but we just wanted to make sure it wasn’t us.”
But when South Dakota State jumped out to a six-point lead at the halfway point of the first half thanks to an 11-0 run, Burke said at no point did his thoughts drift back.
“We knew that we can’t think about last year,” Burke said.
In fact, many players noted that the team did a great job all week of blocking out the negative vibes many had toward the Wolverines.
“I don’t think we listened to that, I definitely don’t,” Robinson said. “That negative talk, we try to keep that out of the locker room and I think we had a great mentality to come out with confidence and the little bit of swagger that we need.”
Now that Michigan has gotten over the first-game hump and is moving on with a chance to make its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994, the team senses a momentum its lacked in the past several weeks.
“In the NCAA Tournament, it’s so much (about) momentum,” Bartelstein said. “You see teams where you win that first one, you just kind of go, so I think to get that first one and play really well, it’s big for our confidence.”
CROSSING (OFF) JORDAN: For the first time this month, Morgan was a healthy scratch from the Wolverines’ starting lineup, and even when the starter McGary needed a breather, redshirt sophomore Jon Horford was usually the replacement.
Morgan, who struggled mightily in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, played a career-low one minute.
Michigan coach John Beilein said after last weekend’s loss to Wisconsin that he’d evaluate Morgan in practice and then decide Thursday’s starter, but McGary said he was informed of his starting role early in the week, implying that the coaching staff didn’t want to risk another slow start with Morgan on the floor.
“(Beilein told me) that I would still play, but ‘I just want to start out well,’ ” Morgan said.
But Morgan played just two possessions, and though the Wolverines came up with defensive stops on each, he failed to record any statistic after recording a combined four points and five rebounds in two games last week.