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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Guards make Michigan favorite

By Scoop Jackson
ESPN.com

I have a friend who is so Kansas we call him "Lawrence."

Before the Dance began, he went in search of the so-fresh Jayhawks Trefoil track jacket to wear during the round of 64, the three-striped track jacket to wear during the Sweet 16 and asked me if I had a connect with Bill Self or the equipment manager to see if I could request the alternate camo jersey with "Beware of The Phog" inscribed on the inside for him to rock during the Final Four.

But once "Lawrence" saw what the University of Michigan did to VCU, he gave me a call: "Yeah brah, I think you can hold off on trying to get that KU jersey for the Final Four. I don't think I'll be needing it."

Burke/Haradaway
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are first and second, respectively, in scoring and assists for Michigan.

He saw what I'd said long before this tournament began: "If the truth holds that guards and/or guard play is what wins NCAA championships, then hand Michigan the trophy early because they have the best backcourt in college basketball."

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke are the new Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, maybe better. Of all of the backcourts that have helped make that theory true about guards winning the tournament (funny how that is rarely said about the NIT or the women's tournament) over the past 15 years -- a list that includes Charlie Bell and Mateen Cleaves at Michigan State, Jay Williams and Chris Duhon at Duke, Juan Dixon and Steve Blake at Maryland -- none is collectively as strong and talented as Burke and Hardaway.

It's only a question of whether Burke and Hardaway can put together four more wins the same way the above mentioned duos did.

What separates them from say, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith of Louisville or "Lawrence's" own Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore (although Johnson is technically playing out of position and McLemore is currently in an ugly slump), the other tandems of greatness left in the tournament, is what Hardaway and Burke did last Saturday and whom they did it against.

VCU's "Havoc" pressure defense, as coach Shaka Smart likes to call it, was possibly the best baseline-to-baseline defense in the country, the most worrisome Michigan is going to face all tournament.

"Usually we get the other team to get out of control," VCU guard Rob Brandenberg said after the loss. "We dictate the pace." Neither Burke nor Hardaway allowed that to happen. And even though Burke had seven turnovers in the first 25 minutes while trying to figure out the Rams' defense, he still found a way to make breaking down the defense look almost elementary en route to blowing VCU out of the Palace.

(In its first game of the tournament, VCU won by 46 points, then turned around and lost to Michigan by 25. That 71-point difference from winning one game to losing the next is the largest in the history of the NCAA tournament.)

And with Hardaway dropping 3s (he had five in the first tournament win over South Dakota State) and doing breakaway-cradle-reverse dunks like he did last weekend, the sky's not the limit for them, heaven is.

No dishonor to the Durand Scotts and Shane Larkins (Miami) or Keith Applings and Gary Harrises (Michigan State) of the college basketball world, but Hardaway and Burke are playing on a different plateau right now.

While Hardaway has the Hall of Fame gene pool thing working (his father, Tim Hardaway, was named as a finalist for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year), Burke is a finalist for the 2013 Naismith Player of the Year award and was just named Sports Illustrated National Player of the Year.

Them peaking and balling at this level at this time is a lethal, dangerous, better-hope-and-pray-both-of-them-have-bad-games-at-the-same-time combination that opposing coaches are going to have problems finding ways to stop.

Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss) and Khalif Wyatt (Temple) probably were the only players who could do a Kemba Walker and win games by themselves in this tournament. Now that they are no longer in any team's way, Burke and Hardaway are the strongest candidates left who can "win it all by themselves."

But not all great backcourts win this thing. There was Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn at Ohio State in the late '90s, the legendary Ricky Grace and Mookie Blaylock at Oklahoma in the late '80s, Jameer Nelson and Delonte West at Saint Joseph's almost a decade ago.

Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts came a few free throws and a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer short of going down as one of the greatest backcourts ever (hell, they stopped Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison of UCLA from advancing and being in this conversation). The 2005 Deron Williams-Dee Brown backcourt for Illinois (along with Luther Head as the third guard) is still considered by many as the best guard package of this generation, but that group ran up against a UNC whip that no team in this current tournament could share the court with for 20 minutes -- let alone try to hang with for 40.

Steve Blake and Juan Dixon
Steve Blake, left, and Juan Dixon led Maryland to a title in 2002.

Losses happen.

But a team at this point is going to have to come with a helluva lot more than an acclaimed, decorated, highly touted, NBA-ready backcourt to beat what Hardaway and Burke have going. Those loses in the Big Ten (including two to Indiana) mean nothing now. TB and TH2 have found their groove and it also might be too late for teams to try to find an answer to counter them.

Plus, it's not as though Burke and Hardaway don't have help. Freshman forward Mitch McGary was the player of the game/hero in the most recent win that got them to the Land of 16. Nik Stauskas, the team's third-leading scorer and leading 3-point shooter, is capable of having a big game at any moment. And Glenn Robinson III is showing flashes of heredity (his father being the great former NBA vet Glenn Robinson), scoring 21 in the first tourney win against South Dakota State. They could be the toughest out left standing. (Sorry, FGCU.)

The Wolverines aren't two-dimensional, they just have two dimensions in the backcourt that may prove to be impossible for any team to match or defeat. (Sorry again, FGCU.)

If it is true that "guards win NCAA tournaments," then between Siva and Smith in Louisville and Johnson and McLemore in Kansas (whom Michigan has to go through Friday to survive and advance), the duo of Burke and Hardaway has legit competition for the throne. They are Burke and Hardaway's potential Bruce Lee moments, their Games of Death; they are, on paper, the only other guard tandems left in the Dance that in any given 40 minutes have the ability to outplay and outshine the Wolverines' guards.

But Burke and Hardaway would both have to have a pretty bad 40 minutes of basketball for that to happen. They may will themselves -- and their team -- to a place that won't allow that to happen.

Not this year.

Because if their first two games are any indication of what their future in the backcourt together holds, then we can go ahead and just add their names to the top of the list of guards in NCAA history who made that "guards win NCAA tournaments" theory truth.