Team effort helps Michigan beat Cuse

ATLANTA -- The possibility that became reality following Michigan's 61-56 win over Syracuse in the Final Four on Saturday night began to materialize weeks ago.

As the Wolverines stomped Jackrabbits (South Dakota State), corralled Rams (Virginia Commonwealth), caged Jayhawks (Kansas) and wrestled Gators (Florida) to pave their path toward the national semifinals, they awakened the way contenders must in March.

But every scenario that involved Michigan competing in its first national championship game in 20 years would demand another phenomenal effort by Trey Burke -- America's best player -- conventional wisdom suggested.

Those ideas did not include Mitch McGary (10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) playing like a lottery pick. Again. Or Caris LeVert logging 21 minutes and going 3-for-4 in Atlanta. Spike Albrecht (2-for-2 from beyond the arc) wasn't even mentioned.

Jon Horford making the most important free throw of the game, while Burke struggled, in a Michigan victory? Unimaginable … to everyone else.

"It's not a one-man team," Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "Everybody in the media has been talking about it. That's why it's a team. It's a team win. That's what we focus on. We know Trey is our leader. He's not going to have a game like he's [usually had] the whole season. That's when our team steps up, just tries to pick him up. He really doesn't need it, but we try to pick it up anyway, try to go out there and do a great job of competing."

Prior to Saturday's win, the concept of Michigan reaching its first national championship matchup since the Fab Five wore maize and blue was nullified by one thought: What if Burke goes cold?

This week, the sophomore collected every meaningful national player of the year honor: the Associated Press, the Oscar Robertson (United States Basketball Writers Association) and the Wooden. And more will probably follow. For five months, he had carried Michigan in a display that elevated his value at the next level and ultimately confirmed his status as the college game's top performer.

Against Syracuse, however, he was mortal.

You couldn't feel Burke's presence at the Georgia Dome.

He finished 1-for-8 from the field and 1-for-4 from the 3-point line with four assists and a turnover. Syracuse's 2-3 zone had ruined the game plans of point guards throughout the tournament. And Burke had as many struggles as the others.

"Well, I just think they're magnificent in that zone," Burke said. "They have a lot of length. It's tough to try to get the ball into the middle. You think something's open; it may not be. They pride themselves on deflections. We just tried to be as careful as possible. We know they strive off of turnovers. They do a good job of turning turnovers into touchdowns. We gave up some good looks, sometimes we shot some looks that weren't necessarily there."

The college basketball world's preoccupation with Burke's pursuit of trophies and the NBA has been the program's main storyline in 2012-13. He possesses skills so diverse that he usually manages to avoid the proverbial "off night" because he enters each game with the necessary maneuvers to affect matchups even when he's missing shots.

Everything Burke does best, however, the Orange were prepared to neutralize. So Burke was more spectator than catalyst. But he watched his team prove it's much bigger than one star as it led him to the national championship matchup.

McGary hit jump shots, snatched rebounds and led the team in assists. Hardaway hit decisive 3s. LeVert and Albrecht, too.

And they all combined to hold the Orange's offense to a 3-for-14 clip from the 3-point line and force 10 turnovers. Michigan's bench outscored Syracuse's reserves 21-11.

Burke's teammates figured there would be a night that would require other players to guide the program in a critical moment in the postseason.

They prepared for it on a Monday night in Ann Arbor.

A day after the Wolverines had lost to Penn State on Feb. 27 in State College, Pa., Michigan players held a team meeting at the Pizza House restaurant.

It was not a "PG" gathering. They had been defeated by a squad that ultimately won just two Big Ten games. The loss magnified doubts nationally about their postseason potential.

To win the Big Ten championship and make a run in March, players recognized, they had to be honest with each other about their challenges.

"The mood was just a real intense mood, where it was like a no-holds-barred meeting," Corey Person said. "No punches were pulled. We just felt like as much time as we spend together, we should be able to keep it perfectly honest with each other and don't have to sugarcoat anything. So that's what we were talking about. And one of the main things was everybody fulfilling their roles and understanding what the team needs of them to do and letting everybody know when they fulfill their role that's when we're at our best."

The Wolverines have lost just two games since that gathering. And they've won five in a row.

A sixth would give the program its first national title since 1989.

To beat Louisville, the Wolverines must remain calm against defensive pressure that has forced opponents to collapse for the past two months. Even a layman can guess Louisville's game plan. Rick Pitino's program will attempt to stop Michigan's offense by attacking Burke, its maestro. Before Saturday, beating the Wolverines seemed that simple.

After UM's Final Four victory over Syracuse, however, it's clear that solving Michigan is more complicated than that.

"That's kind of what we do," Albrecht said. "We have other players step up and carry us."

And that's why the ride will continue to Monday.