|Spike Albrecht: suddenly an important piece in Michigan's run at a Final Four this year? (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- You can't tell from the final score because it was 71-57, Michigan. But there was actually a time when the title game of Friday's NIT Season Tipoff was very much in the balance, and that time was when Trey Burke got whistled for his second foul.
There were still six minutes left in the first half.
The score was 22-18.
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"Coach [John] Beilein's thing is that if you get two fouls in the first half, you're done," said Michigan freshman Spike Albrecht. "So as soon as Trey got his second I knew I was going in."
And he knew right.
But who knew what would happen next?
Suddenly a team ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll was on national television against a Big 12 school picked to finish in the top half of its league, and the guy in charge of dribbling the ball and protecting this four-point lead here inside Madison Square Garden was a 5-foot-11 zero-star recruit who chose Michigan over Appalachian State last April when Beilein offered while scrambling when it appeared Burke might be headed to the NBA.
Simply put, Michigan needed a point guard.
Any point guard.
Because even if Burke returned to school, Michigan still wouldn't have a capable backup point guard on the roster, which meant Albrecht -- who had played summer ball with some Michigan recruits -- knew he'd either have a realistic chance to start for the Wolverines as a freshman or, at worst, back up a future pro for a top-10 team. Either scenario seemed more intriguing than playing in the Southern Conference. So Albrecht passed on Appalachian State and committed to Michigan, and now, seven months later, he was checking into an important game and being asked to do important things.
"We had the lead," Albrecht said. "I knew I just had to protect the lead till halftime."
Which he did.
The score was 22-18 when Albrecht entered.
The score was 29-24 when he exited at halftime.
"Spike didn't blink," Beilein said. "He looks like an altar boy, but he's out there playing in Madison Square Garden like he's done it his whole life."
Albrecht's stats weren't special. He got three points and two rebounds in 12 total minutes. But to focus on that is to miss the point -- the point being that six of those minutes were the final six minutes of the first half of a close game against a quality opponent on a big stage that was forced upon Albrecht only because a referee twice blew a whistle at Burke.
Albrecht's job wasn't to win the game.
It was to not lose it.
To hold the lead.
To show he can succeed -- or at least not get overwhelmed -- in this type of situation, and he succeeded to the extent that Michigan's lead actually increased while Albrecht was on the court. This is important. Because you just know Burke is also going to get two early fouls at some point during the NCAA tournament, and that's how what happened here will help in March. Remember, this is a Michigan team that wants to make a Final Four and maybe even win a national championship. If the Wolverines do it, a lot of that, obviously, will be because of Burke and fellow star Tim Hardaway Jr., the latter of whom finished with 23 points and seven rebounds against Kansas State and was subsequently named the NIT Season Tipoff's Most Valuable Player. But almost every team that achieves big things in this sport faces adversity along the way, and sometimes that adversity is something as simple as two fouls on a starting point guard in the opening 14 minutes of the Sweet 16.
Maybe that'll happen to Michigan. Maybe it won't. But if it does, remember this column from this Black Friday and how Albrecht looked comfortable on this day. He seemed fine. He did what he was asked to do, and there's no denying it was an experience that should aid if he's ever asked to do it again on a big or even bigger stage.
"It was a little test for all of us," Albrecht said. "It's good to get it out of the way early."