Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Two decades after the Fab Five dominated the college basketball landscape, the Michigan Wolverines are back in the Final Four, but this year's team aspires to do something the 1992 and 1993 squads could not: win it all.
John Beilein, putting the wraps on his sixth year as the head man at Michigan, has orchestrated an impressive turnaround during his tenure, his club making the NCAA Tournament field in four of the past five seasons after failing to earn a bid from 1999-2008. Beilein had already been a head coach for nearly 30 years with stops at West Virginia, Richmond and Canisius prior to his stint in Ann Arbor, and after seeing such a strong program fall on hard times, he felt he had the skills, initiative and experience to do what it takes to get it back to the promised land.
"Programs like Michigan were so revered to me, and I knew the opportunity was there to really do something special because they hadn't won," Beilein said. "If they had been winning like crazy, I may not have been driven to it. But the fact that their had been this hiatus of 10 years, that's what drove me."
After solid seasons ended in early-round exits in the NCAA Tournament the last several years, Beilein has finally put together a squad capable of doing historic things. In fact, of the four teams remaining, the Maize and Blue have arguably been the most dominant during their run. After easily dismissing South Dakota State (71-56) and VCU (78-53) in the second and third rounds, respectively, the Wolverines faced a tall task versus the South Region's No. 1 seed, Kansas in a Sweet 16 matchup. After trailing by as many as 14 points with under seven minutes to play, they pulled off an improbable comeback, capped off by a game-tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds of regulation by Trey Burke to force overtime. Michigan would go on to win, 87-85.
"We love coaching (Burke) because he's got courage and he wants to take shots like that," Beilein said of his star guard.
The momentum gained at the end of the Kansas game was all Michigan needed to prevail in its Elite Eight clash with third-seeded Florida, as it got back to its dominant ways with a 79-59 triumph to punch its ticket to the Final Four in Atlanta where it will battle fellow No. 4 seed Syracuse on Saturday night.
The Wolverines' impressive play has hardly come out of nowhere. At 30-7 overall, they have notched their best record since the 1992-93 National Championship runner-up squad, and it is the most wins ever recorded by a Beilein-coached team. Their success reached the pinnacle in early February, when they were 20-2, ranked No. 1 in the country, and headed into a conference showdown with third-ranked Indiana. However, after dropping an 81-73 decision in Bloomington, Michigan lost its way down the stretch, going just 6-6 in the 12 games leading up to the start of NCAA Tournament, which included a 68-59 defeat to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
The club's late-season struggles earned a lack of respect from the tournament selection committee, as it was awarded a No. 4 seed in the South Region, lower than fellow Big Ten teams Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State. However, coming in under the radar allowed Michigan to relax and play its best basketball of the campaign.
Naturally, this year's team is going to garner plenty of comparisons to the Fab Five squad, and while boasting different styles, they do share a few similarities. The starting lineup is the key, and much like Chris Webber in the early 1990s, the 2012-13 squad leans on a superstar of its own in Burke.
The Big Ten Player of the Year and a First Team All-American, Burke was the unquestioned catalyst for the Wolverines this season, averaging 18.8 ppg with impressive percentages from the field (.464), 3-point range (.381) and the foul line (.808), while adding 6.8 apg and 1.6 spg. Surprisingly however, despite saving his team's season with the clutch jumper against Kansas, Burke hasn't been at his best in this tournament, as he is shooting less than 35 percent from the field in the first four games.
While Burke's track record is well established, the team would not be where it is without the emergence of freshman forward Mitch McGary. Although he has come off the bench in the majority of games this season, and averages just 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest, McGary has been a difference-maker during the tournament, logging 17.5 points and 11.5 caroms per contest, highlighted by a 25-point, 14-rebound effort in the win over Kansas.
"When I committed, I told them I wanted to come here and win a national championship," McGary said. "I didn't think it was going to be real, but we're on our way."
McGary gives Michigan incredible balance in the starting lineup, as he joins Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.6 ppg) and fellow freshmen Nik Stauskas (11.5 ppg) and Glenn Robinson III (11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg). Stauskas, a 3-point specialist, displayed his prowess in the Elite Eight win over Florida, draining all six of his attempts from beyond the arc in netting 22 points.
After the Fab Five's efforts were vacated by the NCAA following a recruiting and improper benefits scandal, the Michigan basketball program slid into a dark period that took years to climb out from under. Thanks to the efforts of Beilein, his staff and players, the Wolverines have been restored to one of the top programs in the country, but even with all the success, Beilein remains humble in his approach.
"It's never been about (championships), believe it or not," Beilein said. "It's always been about what we have here. There are a lot of people who are a part of it, a lot of people who helped a nomadic coach who has always been looking for an opportunity to do something like this. If we had never went to the Final Four, it wouldn't have been like, 'Oh, I missed out on something.' But the fact that we are going is great, the frosting on the cake."