By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
After falling just short of a national title in a loss to Louisville, Trey Burke was asked about his relationship with Michigan coach John Beilein.
“The respect I have for Coach Beilein is at an all-time high and it will always be,” Burke said. “Throughout my college career, throughout whatever my opportunities are after college, he’s just the guy that you’ll respect, not only on the court, but off the court. He’s the guy that’s going to hold you accountable for all your actions and he’s going to help you grow up as a man.”
It was hard to escape the sense of finality in Burke’s postgame comments, and although the sophomore point guard says he’ll take his time before deciding whether to leave for the NBA, Michigan’s future is uncertain after Monday night’s 82-76 loss in the NCAA title game.
Burke, the AP national player of the year, is an obvious candidate to turn pro after considering it last year, and the Wolverines’ tournament run leaves a few other players with decisions to make, too. Once the dust settles from all that, it will be easier to evaluate Michigan’s chances of another Final Four run next season. This was the team’s first since 1993, and it gave the school a chance to take pride in its basketball team again.
“The people of Ann Arbor have been so good, our brand throughout the world,” Beilein said. “We made a major step toward that, of living up to what this university has provided for so many students and student-athletes.”
Michigan began the season with 16 straight wins and eventually reached No. 1. The Wolverines wore down a bit toward the end of the Big Ten schedule and missed out on a conference title because of a one-point loss to Indiana in the regular-season finale.
After a nondescript showing in the Big Ten tournament, expectations dipped a bit, and when Michigan routed Virginia Commonwealth to reach the NCAA round of 16 for the first time since 1994, it was considered a significant accomplishment.
Turned out there was more to come.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to even get this far,” Burke said after the title game. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to even get past the second round. You know, we fought. We fought all the way up to this point.”
Burke’s long 3-pointer in the final seconds forced overtime in the regional semifinals against Kansas, and then Michigan routed Florida and edged Syracuse to reach the title game.
The Wolverines did all this with a young team. Burke is a sophomore and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a junior, but Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas are all freshmen, and at the Final Four, a couple more freshmen emerged in Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert.
The future could be bright even if Burke leaves, but Hardaway, Robinson and McGary could all test the NBA waters, too. The coming days will be intriguing and provide a good idea of how much Michigan will rely on an incoming recruiting class that includes standout guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin.
This was Beilein’s sixth season at Michigan, and the team has steadily improved in each of the last three. The Wolverines made the NCAA tournament in 2011 and won a game there, then they tied for their first Big Ten title since 1986 last year. This Final Four run brought basketball back to the forefront at the football-crazy school and gives the program a major opportunity going forward.
It will be harder to build on this if several players turn pro, but Michigan kept improving despite the departure of standout guard Darius Morris following the 2010-11 season. After performing brilliantly in so many big games over the last month, the Wolverines have announced their return to national prominence.
“We are proud of each other and we worked extremely hard all year to get to this point,” Stauskas said. “Just because we lost this game we don’t want to hang our heads that low. Obviously this is a tough loss to swallow, but we’re going to move on from this and get better.”