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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Even before they could leave the Palace at Auburn Hills, the Michigan basketball team was savoring its success in its home state.
So much that when No. 4 Wolverines sat down at the podium in the minutes after Saturday’s 78-52 win over fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, they sported maize T-shirts that read “Sweetness.”
Sweet as in Sweet Sixteen.
That’s where the Wolverines are headed in this year’s NCAA Tournament. And this week, they’ll take their act and, most likely, those bright yellow shirts on the road. Michigan makes its first round-of-16 appearance Friday when it faces No. 1 Kansas (31-5) in a South region matchup in Arlington, Texas.
Michigan point guard Trey Burke — who on Sunday was named as one of four finalists for the 2013 Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award — considers where his team has come from in the last 12 months. A year ago, the Wolverines watched the NCAA Tournament at home after a first-round upset at the hands of Ohio University.
“We’re definitely proud, honored to be able to play in the Sweet 16,” said Burke, who averaged 12 points and seven assists in his first two NCAA Tournament games.
“At the same time, we still know that we have work to do. It feels so good just because last year, it was so devastating how bad the locker room was after we lost in the first game to Ohio. So just to have the opportunity to go to Dallas and to play in the Sweet 16, in this tournament, that’s filled with the best teams in the country is definitely an honor.”
At Cowboys Stadium, the Wolverines (27-9) will face the Jayhawks, one of the nation’s traditional powers. Coincidentally, it’s where Michigan opened its 2012 football season, a 41-14 drubbing in September at the hands of eventual BCS champion Alabama.
Kentucky soundly defeated Kansas in the 2012 national championship game in New Orleans, but on Sunday in Kansas City, the Jayhawks were down 30-21 at the half against North Carolina — on account of an 0 for 11 stretch of shooting in the first half and 12 first-half turnovers — but the Jayhawks opened with a 22-6 run in the first 8:05 of the second half.
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After Saturday’s win over VCU, Michigan enters play on its fifth neutral court of the season and is 6-1 on neutral ground, and it will travel to Dallas with a certain psyche. Not too loose, but not too uptight.
“It feels great, especially when you have a group of guys out here that are playing, just playing mindless basketball and just going out there and having fun,” Michigan guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., said. “We know we’ve got to be poised and we got to make smart plays while we’re out there, but Coach [John] Beilein always trusts us to just go out there and have fun, and if you keep doing that, then we go a long way.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.