"When Michigan's freshmen show up, they're a different team."
That's a phrase that has been uttered so much in recent months that it has become cliché, but it doesn't make it any less true. The first two games of the tournament presented further proof.
Earlier this season the mental burden of knowing just how much of the team's fortunes rest on frosh performances may have at times been a lot for the youngsters to bear. Now it's something they uniformly accept and embrace. According to Michigan assistant Laval Jordan, that was extremely evident in the Wolverines 25-point romp over VCU.
"The freshmen… Spike, Glenn and Mitch… they did a phenomenal job of just staying in attack mode and handling (the press) with poise," Jordan recalled. "It was fun to watch."
It must have been particularly joyous to see Mitch McGary have his way with his unsuspecting opponents. Especially when taking into account the hard work and focus that the young big man exhibited en route to earning his new role.
"I thought in practice he's just shown much more discipline than he had been showing, and is more consistent," Jordan explained. "He's done a great job getting his body physically ready (with strength coach) John Sanderson. Mentally I thought he was preparing better, locking in on the things that Bacari and Coach Beilein had him locking in on. (Plus) he's a great teammate, and when you have guys depending on you to do a job, you want to come out and do it for your teammates. That's the kind of guy Mitch is… he's a team guy. It was a matter of just him making some mistakes (early), realizing that there were things he needs to work on, and now, putting it all together. That's what the coaches told all these guys, ‘hey, we have 30 games under our belt of learning; now all the things you learned, all the lessons, let's put them all together.'"
The belief amongst those in the locker room is that the rigorous conference slate prepared the freshmen to battle any adversity they might face in the tournament, but starting their Big Dance experience against teams that like to get up and down the floor certainly didn't hurt matters. That may have been particularly helpful for Glenn Robinson III.
"I think (it helped) getting out of the grind of the Big Ten where coaches are really good, scouting reports are heavy, and it's just a little more physical," said Jordan. "(VCU) opened up the court, South Dakota State wanted to play a little faster and open up the court a little bit, and I think Glenn – again, like Mitch… and all these freshmen, there's a learning curve that takes place. You don't know when it's all going to click, but I think they've had great opportunities thus far, and again, they're great teammates. They want to actually be competitive and have a chance to win a national title. They understand that their teammates are dependent on them to lock in and do certain things."
Robinson and McGary rewarded that trust with a gaudy combined stat line of 69 points and 36 rebounds. Look a little deeper in the box score and there's another vivid example of a freshman doing a great job playing his role. Backup point guard Spike Albrecht saw 20 minutes of action the two tournament games, highlighted by a season high 15 minutes versus VCU.
"He was terrific," Jordan said of Albrecht. "Spike has been getting picked on all his life, so it's nothing new when he subs in and they try to hit him up a little bit. That doesn't scare him. He's one of the toughest guys I've coached, so he was phenomenal (versus VCU), just helping get the ball up the court and then make some plays. He was in attack mode, and we had to do that in order to play with those guys. They were really good, and they're really good at what they do."
But Michigan was better at what it does. For much of the season that statement was only true if Trey Burke and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. performed well. Now there seems to be a lot more variables in the Maize & Blue's success.
"(The first two opponents) did everything imaginable to try to wear (Burke) down, and he did a great job of deferring, letting Spike, letting Nik (Stauskas), letting Tim handle the ball and make plays… and trusting each other. It was a huge thing. Guys had to be connected, and I thought we were.
The key now is to stay that way.