The man who chewed his nails all week says he does not get nervous. Trey Burke just does that to help himself concentrate. So there was Michigan's sophomore point guard, nibbling away in a film session in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Wolverines were just an hour from their Ann Arbor home but deep in NCAA Tournament World, which revolves around a bracket that links the fates of 68 teams spread across the country.
On a team bus ride last Thursday, coach John Beilein asked his staff to explain how Marquette came back from a six-point deficit with 70 seconds left to stun Davidson. In a Crowne Plaza ballroom that served as dining hall and meeting room for the Wolverines, assistant coach Jeff Meyer studied No. 13 seed South Dakota State, Michigan's first opponent, while watching Wichita State play Pitt on his iPad. Meyer had worked with Shockers coach Gregg Marshall at Winthrop.
And when several players gathered in one of the hotel rooms—relaxing, taking turns getting their hair cut and laughing—Burke sat on the edge of a bed, watching one of the First Four games. Burke's teammate from Northland High in Columbus, guard Devon Moore, helped James Madison beat LIU-Brooklyn on the familiar NCAA-branded court.
"It gets me excited, just seeing this logo," Burke said.
SI had exclusive access to Burke and the No. 4--seeded Wolverines during the first week of the NCAA tournament, including walk-throughs, team meals, film sessions and locker room meetings. It was a window into the tournament with a team that is talented enough to win the national title but inexperienced enough to lose its first-round matchup.
Of the top nine players in Michigan's rotation, five are freshmen. The effort of these first-year players has fluctuated, and at times during the season they seemed overwhelmed. Beilein's terminology is so dense that it sounds like a football team's, except there is no huddle between plays. Freshman shooting guard Nik Stauskas says that even now, "Sometimes he'll call a play and I'll kind of blank out on what I do."
Beilein and his staff have made a calculated decision to stay positive with their young players, reminding them that they beat Michigan State (a No. 3 seed in this tournament) and played Indiana (a No. 1) even, rather than berate them for the 15-point lead they blew in a loss at Penn State. "I'm trying to pump them up as much as I can," the coach says. "The errors we make right now are of omission, that second of Should I do it or not?" The 60-year-old coach has taken four programs to the NCAA tournament. He's never advanced past the Elite Eight, but he's never had a team this talented.
And Michigan can't afford to wait for next season. Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, almost left for the NBA last spring and will almost certainly turn pro this June. Pro scouts are eyeing freshman forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, as well as junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., the only upperclassman who starts. In college basketball these days, as soon as you teach kids to use a knife and fork, they leave to run a restaurant.
The team is a tantalizing but unwieldy package, and Burke, SI's national player of the year, is the string that holds it together. A year ago, in his only tournament game, Burke missed three shots in the final minute as the fourth-seeded Wolverines lost to No. 13 Ohio. He said that game was "definitely on my mind" as he thought about turning pro. He did not want to leave as a loser.
Thursday, vs. South Dakota State