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With PG to prove it and coach who's earned it, Michigan meets potential

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- John Beilein stood on the slick and soaked dark-blue locker room carpet that was doused with red Powerade about 20 minutes prior. He was the reason for the spill.

The Wolverines had taken their time in getting off the elevated court inside Cowboys Stadium after their with-ease 79-59 Elite Eight win over No. 3 Florida on an Easter Sunday. Once they all assembled for private postgame cheers and stood up following a team prayer, Beilein was ambushed by Mitch McGary and Blake McLimans, freshman and senior, who gripped a cooler and drenched their 60-year-old coach for making his first Final Four and bringing Michigan back to one after a two-decade sabbatical.

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The team erupted, their cheers clearly audible through cement walls. Beilein was sopping, smiling. He'd immediately need to change out of his suit and toss on some other garb before heading to the press conference with his starting five that's going to the Final Four.

"I'm a little bit speechless," Beilein said at the dais. "I'm sure I'll find the words later on."

The words came soon after, in the locker room. And as he recalled the postgame scene, explained the ways of this win and many wins, remembered his days at Division II Nazareth College and humorously spoke about putting off thinking about that 2-3 Syracuse zone that he'll face in six short days, a team manager slipped on the carpet and completely soaked himself.

****

For Michigan, the journey to Atlanta began on June 28, 2012. That's when the team met in the locker room and assembled its new goals. It has failed at some of them, like winning the Big Ten title and nabbing a Big Ten tournament championship. How small those defeats must seem now, though.

This green Michigan team, younger than any group in this year's tournament, is going to a Final Four because it's in bloom. The Wolverines are now what we believed they could be back in November and December. Proof of promise comes in the form of Final Four berths, and that's what UM has finally come around to. Age is no issue. It plays great, beautiful, dazzling offense. It has weapons as varied, strong, multidimensional and renewable as any team in this tournament.

And it all starts with No. 3, mister Trey Burke, the point guard who has proven himself in the past four games -- if the 33 in the regular season weren't evidence enough for you -- that he is this sport's best combination of talent and ability. Burke's work ethic was a driving force, dating back to last summer. It's when he believed the team was capable of going to the Final Four. He spoke publicly about those ambitions -- and caught some grief from the coaches for it, he said following Sunday's win.

But with so few leaders at point guard, guys who are this good from a talent perspective and so level-headed as well -- and as a sophomore! -- it's a large part of why Michigan's even here.

"The distractions were minimal," Beilien said. "The attention to details and work habits were sensational."

A lot will be made of the freshmen on this team, the unearned-in-many-ways comparisons to the Fab Five, the symmetry of 20-year anniversaries and how this squad compares to that one. But, just like this team has no Chris Webber or Jalen Rose or Juwan Howard, that team had nothing like Trey Burke, the quiet kid who's college basketball's most valuable, irreplaceable, indefensible player.

Burke snagged a career-best eight boards on Sunday in addition to his 15 points and seven assists. He put up 19 points, 8.5 assists and five rebounds per game the past two weekends. It's that combination of his ability and the surrounding options that make Michigan such an embraceable team and story. It's why they look good on TV, why they cut against the trend of college basketball clubs that are content with scoring 64 and grinding out a W. Burke and his ever-improving cast are why the Big Ten has its best chance at winning a national title since the most recent Big Ten team to do it, Michigan State in 2000.

****

Nik Stauskas had just scribbled a few sweaty signatures for fans donning custom-made T-shirts that exclaimed his name on top of blue Canadian national flags (Stauskas' native country). He was in a brisk walk in the wide corridor, heading back to a locker room that still had a dry carpet. One teammate and a few Michigan cheerleaders flanked him as he said, "I called it in warmups! I was feeling it real nice, and I said it, 'Today's the day.'"

Stauskas signs shirts after the win. (Matt Norlander)

It was indeed the day for Stauskas and the Wolverines, who are taking their seventh unofficial trip to college basketball's biggest stage. The freshman nailed six 3s, more than he'd ever made in a game this year and the most any player's made from deep without a miss at this stage of the event -- ever. No player had gone 6-for-6 in regional tourney history until 3.31.13.

Even Beielin admitted surprise over it.

But that's Michigan. Stauskas doing this, McGary coming up so big the past three games, Burke's play, Tim Hardaway, Jr.'s penchant for big shots, Spike Albrecht's infectious attitude and sneaky play. All these things are why Michigan's so good, bordering on great -- finally.

McGary had five steals on Sunday. That's a career-best. The team had 13 swipes, tying a season-best. Michigan held Florida to 0.84 points per possession, one of the Gators' worst performances of the year. They'd never given up 13 steals this season, either, until they faced Michigan, a team formerly that had been liable left and right on defense.

"During the middle of the year, we weren't as defensive as a team," Burke said. "But we continued to learn and grow, and it made a difference in this tournament."

The Wolverines put three players on the All-Regional Team (Burke, Stauskas, McGary), but you could've made the case to give them all five spots. Michigan, this fifth-place team from the Big Ten, the only one left from the best league this year. That speaks to both this tournament and the Big Ten for 2013. Like UConn (which finished ninth in the Big East) from two years ago, this group has led by their a do-it-all man in the backcourt.

But these Wolverines are much better than those Huskies. A team that was No. 1 back in January, that started the year 16-0. It's dangerous now, you know it. They know it and feel it. They won't say they're the best; that's not what Beilein endorses or teaches.

"Michigan basketball is all that matters to us," Hardaway, Jr. said.

So, a couple of fours will face off in the Final Four, taking the long way there. Michigan did it in varied seuqences, beating a VCU team that many had over the Wolverines. Then No. 1 Kansas in one of the best comebacks in recent tournament memory, and here with No. 3 Florida, the team the computers loved both in overall standings and in predictive measures to make the Final Four.

And if I'm being honest here, the team looked a little surprised by how easy all this came. The celebration on the court was cheerful but not boisterous.

"I remember when I was a little kid, thinking about going to the Final Four," senior guard Josh Bartelstein said. "When you climb that ladder and think about all of the shots you've taken and all that practice time, to be able to cut down that net brought a tear to my eye."

"It's beautiful," Jon Horford said of getting this team back to prominence nationally and doing it for their soft-spoken coach who's not known all that well, even amongst college basketball fans.

Beilein's coaching career has taken him from the high school ranks in the late '70s to Erie Community College, Nazareth, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond and then to West Virginia for five years before he took the Michigan job in 2007. He'd made one Elite Eight before, back in '05 with WVU. The team blew a 20-point lead to Louisville. That stung and hung with Beilein since.

This time, this year, he'd be a different man, he said. He'd be sure to experience the joys of it with his wife, Kathleen, who was by his side nearly every time that I saw him walking about the stadium before or after games.

"I knew one thing: if we had this opportunity again, I was going to treasure it more," he said.

And he did, amid big irony, that in a South region boasting 10 coaches who'd made a trip to the Final Four, the man without one was there, standing on a soaked rug and soon to embark on the newest, greatest experience in his roving career.

Even if he didn't make the mess, he was responsible for it.

Beilein, back turned above, celebrates his First Final Four trip ever. (Matt Norlander)

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