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April 8, 2013

Michigan faces final test vs. Louisville

ATLANTA — Virginia Commonwealth’s press.

Syracuse’s zone.

Michigan has handled every test so far. Now it’s time for the final exam — a Louisville team that is the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed.

Michigan is trying for its first national title since 1989, and Monday night will be its first appearance in the championship game since 1993, when the Fab Five lost to North Carolina. The last two decades have been difficult for the Wolverines, but after sanctions and mediocrity, they’re back in the spotlight at college basketball’s signature event.

Coach John Beilein’s team is plenty talented, but point guard Trey Burke and the Wolverines have reached this moment because of their smarts — and their ability to adjust quickly to new challenges.

“It means a lot to Michigan,” Burke said. “This program hasn’t been this far in two decades, so just to be back in this situation definitely means the world to alumni and it means the world to us. That’s been our No. 1 goal since Day One.”

It was clear from the start that this could be a special team. Led by Burke, the Wolverines won their first 16 games and were eventually ranked No. 1 in the nation at the start of February. But as Beilein stressed over and over, it was still a young team. Burke, the consensus national player of the year, is a sophomore. Guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is a junior, but Michigan relies a lot on freshmen Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas.

When the NCAA tournament began, the Wolverines still had a lot to prove — but this team’s mental strength should not be underestimated.

On the first weekend of the tournament, Michigan faced VCU in the round of 32. After only a day to prepare for the Rams’ chaotic full-court press, the Wolverines breezed to a 25-point win.

Two victories later, they were in the Final Four — and again, they were up against an intimidating defense. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone confounded opponents in the     earlier rounds, but Michigan made six first-half 3-pointers and held on to beat the Orange 61-56.

The Wolverines used their final timeout with 1:51 remaining in that game, bringing back memories of Michigan’s last appearance in the Final Four, when Chris Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have, resulting in a technical foul and a loss to North Carolina.

Michigan wasn’t about to make that mistake again, and the Wolverines held their nerve against Syracuse’s pressure.

“We just stuck together,” Burke said. “A lot of people would crack under pressure when you’re in that type of situation.”

Michigan has looked poised, prepared and confident for the last month or so. Burke’s presence at point guard is crucial, but the rest of Beilein’s team makes smart decisions as well.

“He really recruits to his system maybe better than any coach. As Jim (Boeheim) recruits to his zone defensively, he recruits to his system,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “He gets everybody that can pass, catch and shoot. Then if you get up on ‘em, they can ball fake and drive.”

Beilein certainly does take a player’s basketball IQ into account while recruiting, but that’s an inexact science.

“In AAU it’s tough to see that sometimes. That’s why we like to see practices, we like to know their coach a little bit,” Beilein said. “Have they been coached before? Thankfully most of our guys have really good high school coaches, and that helps us determine what they can handle from us.”

The Wolverines have been able to handle every challenge for the last few weeks, and their presence in the title game is a proud moment for a program that was reeling after a federal investigation revealed that a booster gave Webber and three non-Fab Five players more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes. Sanctions cast a cloud over the team for years, but Michigan’s run this season has brought back fonder memories of the past.

On Monday night, the current Wolverines will try to add a national title to their own growing legacy.

“I am still in shock of what we accomplished,” Robinson said. “After watching the national championship for so many years and finally having this opportunity to play in it — especially my freshman year — I am really excited for this game. I can’t wait.”

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