- Jason King
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few hours after Michigan’s 87-85 overtime win over Kansas on Friday night, a pair of Wolverines flipped on the television set in their room at the Dallas Sheraton hotel.
Late into the night, they watched "SportsCenter" replays of Trey Burke’s 30-foot 3-pointer that shifted the momentum in a victory that catapulted Michigan into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994.
“I can’t believe this,” Mitch McGary said to Glenn Robinson III. “This is one of the greatest moments of my life, to be a part of this team and to have a comeback win like that and be in the Elite Eight.”
Florida players have experienced the feeling, too.
And even more than they remember the elation of reaching the Elite Eight, the Gators still feel the agony of falling one game short of the Final Four. Billy Donovan’s squad, which lost in the regional finals the past two seasons, will try to break the hex Sunday against Michigan.
“Expectations are high for [Florida],” Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “They’ve been in this situation before, and we haven’t. We’re the underdogs going into this game.”
The matchup is definitely intriguing: Florida, a senior-laden team with loads of NCAA tournament experience, versus a Michigan team led by underclassmen who have never played beyond the event’s first weekend.
The Wolverines have said all along that their age and lack of past tournament success won't be a factor, and they backed it up Friday by rallying from a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat a KU squad that started four seniors.
“I’m sure a lot of people probably turned the channel,” Burke said. “Most teams probably would’ve quit or started fouling. But we weren’t going to let our season end.”
Michigan is routinely hailed for its talent and offensive prowess. But it’s time to start praising the Wolverines’ toughness, too. It’s clearly the area in which John Beilein’s squad has improved the most throughout the season.
Part of the reason is that the Wolverines played in the rugged Big Ten, which was far and away the best conference in college basketball this season. Nearly every game was a grind, both mentally and physically. Scores were almost always close. Teams that lost confidence had no chance.
Michigan finished 12-6 in league play, two games behind 14-4 Indiana. Still, the battles the Wolverines fought in January and February clearly prepared them for March. Three of Michigan’s Big Ten losses were by three points or fewer.
“We went though a lot of adversity,” Burke said. “We’re a young team, but we always found ways to get better and learn from our losses.
“We had some games where we lost at the buzzer, games we thought we should’ve won. We learned from those games, and it allowed us to come into the tournament with a chip on our shoulder. It allowed us to have a lot of momentum.”
Florida, meanwhile, enters Sunday’s game hoping to avoid becoming the first team in NCAA tournament history to lose in the Elite Eight three straight years. The pressure is definitely on Donovan’s squad, which starts three seniors and two juniors, all of whom played significant roles in last season’s march to the Elite Eight.
“We can’t fall back on our experience,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We can’t count on that to get us over the hump.”
A year ago, Florida led Louisville by 11 points with 8:16 remaining but collapsed down the stretch and lost 82-78. Forward Patric Young said the defeat has been hard to shake. He said he and his teammates have been thinking about it ever since this season’s NCAA tournament began two weeks ago.
“There’s fear of having a repeat of that same thing,” Young said, “but also hope that, with the experience we’ve had as a team, that we’re going to come out and fight against that and keeping it from happening.”
For a veteran team, Florida hasn’t shown much poise this season in close games. The Gators are 0-6 in contests decided by single digits.
“Most of it was just a loss of focus on our part,” Wilbekin said. “We didn’t play a full 40 minutes and we didn’t stay locked in. We have to do a better job of that against Michigan. It’s the most important time of the season. The only thing that matters is this game.”
Even an inexperienced freshman such as McGary can figure that out.
“We’re just trying to stay in the moment, stay humble,” he said. “We know it could all go away with the snap of the fingers.”
Who to watch: Michigan’s McGary is averaging 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games. Burke is the leading candidate for the Wooden Award. At 6-foot-10, Florida’s Erik Murphy is a tough matchup because he does the bulk of his scoring away from the basket. Murphy averages a team-high 12.6 points per game and shoots 46 percent from 3-point range.
What to watch: Burke went scoreless in the first half of Friday’s overtime win over Kansas before erupting for 23 points after intermission. The matchup between McGary and Florida’s Young should be fun to watch. Both players are extremely physical.
Stat to watch: Florida is 0-6 in games decided by single digits. Michigan is making its first Elite Eight appearance since 1994.