NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Perhaps the best sign that Michigan’s basketball program was moving in the right direction came not last weekend in the NCAA tournament, but about a month ago toward the end of the regular season.
The Wolverines had just lost to Penn State, a low point during a February stretch that also included a 23-point loss to rival Michigan State. The Wolverines found their character questioned and their prospects for a successful postseason suddenly doubted.
But in a way, the angst was a good sign. This Michigan team had raised expectations in Ann Arbor — and it wasn’t too late for Trey Burke and his teammates to reach them.
Now with a Final Four berth, they have.
“This team has faced a lot of adversity this year, and a lot of people doubted us to get to this point,” Burke said. “A lot of people said we were too young, we weren’t tough enough. But I definitely think that’s why we played with a chip on our shoulder over the last couple of weeks.”
Michigan is headed to the Final Four for the first time since 1993, when Chris Webber and the Fab Five lost in the NCAA title game for the second consecutive year. The Wolverines were on the verge of elimination when Burke made what was probably the shot of the tournament, a long 3-pointer to send their regional semifinal against Kansas into overtime. After winning that game, Michigan routed Florida 79-59.
It’s fitting that the Wolverines made it back to the Final Four now, because 2013 is a significant year for the Michigan program. A federal investigation revealed that a booster gave Webber and three non-Fab Five players more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes, and the NCAA forced the school to dissociate from them until this year.
The dissociation officially ends in May, but the school hasn’t said much about what that will mean. Michigan’s relationship with the Fab Five has been complex. Sanctions related to that era cast a cloud over the program for years, but the on-court success achieved by Webber, Jalen Rose and the rest of that group remains a significant — and positive — part of the program’s history.
The current Wolverines are young. Burke is a sophomore and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a junior, but freshmen Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert have all played important roles. To make room for all those talented newcomers, some more experienced players have had to accept limited playing time. Coach John Beilein compared the situation to what happened two decades ago, when the Fab Five arrived and other players needed to adjust.
“We had a young man Matt Vogrich who was a starter, was a sixth or seventh man for three of his four years here. Now he’s all of a sudden a scout team guy, has stepped back. We had Eso Akunne, a senior, could be playing at Division I at a lot of mid-majors, here he is running our scout team,” Beilein said. “There’s a lot of sacrifices that era with the Fab Five — ‘I’ve got to step back for the team.’ That takes a lot of sacrifice. I’m sure the guys that did that, I’m sure the Fab Five is very appreciative of that during that time, because I know the coaches would be.”
Last year, Michigan shared its first Big Ten title since 1986. The Wolverines couldn’t pull off a repeat, missing out on another tie for first when a last-second shot rolled off the rim against Indiana in the regular-season finale.
That only gave Michigan more motivation going into Sunday’s regional final.
“Coach Beilein before the game said, ‘Hey, we have another opportunity to cut down the nets,'” Hardaway said. “We got a second opportunity, and everybody just got fired up and came out ready to go.”
Despite the occasional disappointment along the way, Wolverines fans have come to appreciate this skilled, athletic group. The recently renovated Crisler Center has become a place to be, even at a school with football and hockey teams that have their own big followings.
Late Sunday night, a few hundred fans gathered outside Crisler to greet the team bus when the Wolverines returned from their win over Florida in Texas.
“Looked to me like 90 percent students who had walked over from the dorms on a Sunday night and wanted to see these guys and congratulate them,” Beilein said. “It meant a lot to our team. It really meant a lot to our team and our coaching staff. So it was special — I don’t think those guys will ever forget that one.”
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