- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- Tim Hardaway Jr. laid on the court in the fetal position, hands grabbing his head. Teammates surrounded him and called out for a trainer.
This is exactly what Michigan couldn’t afford to see, not even a Wolverines team that has more talent than any time in the past decade. Not to Hardaway, the Michigan junior who exploded inside Madison Square Garden for the second game in a row, good enough to be named most outstanding player after the Wolverines beat Kansas State, 71-57, in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game.
Hardaway holding his head underscored his importance to this versatile Michigan team. While it appeared to be more of a scare than anything else -- trainer John DoRosario said Hardaway passed all concussion tests and was allowed to fly back to Ann Arbor, Mich., but not allowed to speak with the media following the game -- his importance to Michigan has skyrocketed.
When Hardaway plays as he did Friday, scoring 23 points on 15 shots and grabbing seven rebounds, the son of NBA all-star point guard Tim Hardaway becomes Michigan's offensive catalyst.
“It opens everything up, basically,” Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke said. “The defense is no longer worried just about the pick-and-roll action. No longer worried about the outside shots and things. They have to worry about Tim getting to the basket, Tim coming off screens.
This was the Hardaway that Michigan thought he might become after a standout freshman season, the Hardaway that USA Basketball hoped for when it selected him for the country’s under-19 national team following his first year in Ann Arbor.
They thought he might become a slashing nightmare for opponents. A player who could make outside shots as easily as he could take defenders to the basket.
After that freshman season, none of that happened. He struggled with the national team. Then he returned to Michigan for his sophomore season, and his freshman confidence had disappeared.
“He just didn’t make any shots,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “I’m on the committee [for USA Basketball], and he was going to be our go-to shooter.”
He was going to be Michigan’s, too. Even on a team with two senior captains and a then-freshman point guard in Burke, who became a star, Hardaway was supposed to be its best player last season.
Those nights were few during his sophomore season.
Hardaway used to be so involved in the emotions of the game -- both the big-picture one involving his team and his own personal game within that -- that it would sometimes hinder his play.
He still has that emotion -- evidenced by a yell Wednesday, or his custom at the end of every pregame highlight video at Crisler Center, when he yells loudly to try to amp up the crowd.
Thus far this season, he has channeled such emotional outbursts correctly, helping grow his game and confidence to the level he needs to have success -- to become the player he, his coaches and his father felt he could become.
“This is what he works for,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He works hard at not just being a shooter, but to have an in-between game, be a rebounder. How about the rebounds he’s getting right now? He’s getting traffic rebounds from a lot of people, taking the ball on the break.
“He would give it up before, and we probably told him to, because he didn’t have that confidence. He has it now.”
That confidence helped him become a player who's looking more and more like a pro. During his two-game stay in New York, Hardaway had many pro-type moments, slashing through multiple Kansas State defenders for a layup Friday, making a game-turning 3-pointer from the top of the key in Michigan’s 67-62 victory over Pittsburgh in Wednesday's semifinals.
He looked every bit the player Michigan hoped he would be when he nailed a Kansas State defender with a crossover nearly on par with his father’s, only to take one more dribble and can a 15-foot jump shot.
When Hardaway played as a freshman in the NCAA tournament, Duke’s Nolan Smith used a similar move on him, forcing Hardaway to the floor. On Friday night, the more mature Hardaway passed it on to someone else.
“He’s a different player now,” Weber said.
Now more than ever, he is closer to the player he always wanted to become.