AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — For the Michigan basketball team, this all could be fleeting. The bright lights, the television cameras, the noted sideline crew, and everything else that goes into the aura of the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines realize that all of it could be wiped out in a short matter of time.
Michigan learned that last season with an unexpected loss to Ohio in the round of 64 — its only night in the tournament — and hope last year’s misstep doesn’t repeat itself this year. The No. 4-seeded Wolverines (26-7) face No. 13 South Dakota State (25-9) in a second round South Region game at 7:15 p.m. today at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
“There’s pretty much no room in the margin this late in the season,” said Michigan point guard Trey Burke, who was named Sports Illustrated’s player of the year earlier this week. “It’s our job as captains to let everybody know, specifically the freshmen, that [today] could be our last game if we don’t come out and execute the way we know we can.
“Just come out with the amount of intensity that we’re down, from the beginning of the game, and I think that will take care of itself.”
While Michigan would appear secure with its spot in the tournament — it prepares for its fourth tournament appearance in the last five years — it faces South Dakota State, one of the newer programs in Division I.
South Dakota State began its transition from Division II to Division I in 2004, and its basketball program began Summit League (at the time known as the Mid-Continent Conference) competition in the 2007-08 season.
In 2012, South Dakota State won its first Summit League title and earned the school’s first Division I tournament berth. In a tournament that loves small-school successes, the Jackrabbits’ story made them a media darling of sorts.
Jackrabbits coach Scott Nagy admitted that while this year he’s more at ease, last year was emotionally overwhelming.
“Even though I had been with the University of Illinois, we went to the Final Four and I was a graduate assistant [in 1989]. I didn’t have to deal with all this. I was just behind the scenes,” said Nagy, in his 18th season.
“As a head coach, you have to deal with all this, the media attention, the radio interviews. It’s less of that this year. I haven’t had the emotions that I had. I’ve been much more calm, and I think that the players have seen that, too.”
Today’s game has one of the more intriguing matchups: Burke (19.2 points per game) facing Jackrabbits senior Nate Wolters, who has averaged 22.7 points this season.
But Michigan coach John Beilein considers the ripple effect the play of each guard will have on his respective team.
“I think that it depends how you guard them, the areas they get to, but there’s a residual effect off of what both of them do all the time,” Beilein said.
“So while some people may be looking at a matchup of those two, both of them get their teammates open. Those guys making those shots will probably determine as much of a matchup between those two.”
While the Wolverines lost to Wisconsin on the second day of the Big Ten tournament, Burke believes his team has a certain mindset.
“I definitely see a different attitude,” Burke said. “Last year we may have been a little bit tired, and we kind of let that get to us. This year, we’re focused and eager to get to where we want to go.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.