ARLINGTON, Texas — Trey Burke was a 16-month-old toddler the last time Michigan was still playing this late in the NCAA Tournament.
That regional final 19 years ago, a loss that ended the Fab Five era, was played in a building that no longer exists. Where Reunion Arena once stood near downtown Dallas is now a vacant lot about 20 minutes from where the Wolverines will play in the Elite Eight.
“It’s definitely crazy,” Burke said Saturday. “Just to get this program moving back in the right direction means a lot to us.”
No. 4 seed Michigan (29-7) plays Southeastern Conference regular-season champion and No. 3 seed Florida (29-7) for the South Regional title on the raised court at ultramodern Cowboys Stadium today.
The Wolverines advanced largely because of Burke, the sophomore and Big Ten player of the year who scored 23 points – all after halftime – as they overcame a 14-point deficit against top seed Kansas. They forced overtime when Burke hit a long game-tying 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left in regulation and won 87-85 in overtime.
“Yeah, I was surprised at how far I was,” Burke admitted.
Burke also had 10 assists, making him the first player to have 20 points and 10 assists in the NCAA round of 16 since 1997. The last to do it? A Providence player named Billy Donovan, who will coach Gators play in their third consecutive regional final.
“It’s funny, my wife says to me this morning, she asked me the same question, she said, ‘Who was the player?’,” said Donovan, admitting that he already knew and remembered his numbers (26 points, 10 assists vs. Alabama). “And I said Magic Johnson. And she said, ‘No, you.’ I said I’m glad I’m comparing myself to Magic Johnson, that’s great.”
Florida has been to this point each of the past two years, but they haven’t been further since winning consecutive national championships under Donovan in 2006 and 2007.
In both of those regional final losses – to Louisville last year and in overtime to Butler in 2011 – the Gators had 11-point leads in the second half. This is now the last chance for fourth-year Florida seniors Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy to get a title of their own.
“Game to game, it’s a different feeling,” Boynton said. “You think about it before the game. Once the game starts, you try to do everything in your control individually and as a team to change the outcome. Up to this point, our team does a great job preparing the right way.”
After falling behind 15-4 early against Florida Gulf Coast, the high-flying No. 15 seed everybody knows now after an unprecedented run to the NCAA round of 16, the Gators recovered with a 16-0 run late in the first half to go ahead to stay in a 62-50 victory.
While Florida is loaded with seniors and NCAA tournament experience, the Wolverines have three freshmen in their starting lineup. Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., one of three sons of former NBA players on Michigan’s roster, is the only starter older than Burke.
All that youth never kept them from starting the season with the goal of competing for a national championship.
“A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people thought we were too young, not tough enough. And I think we’ve proved people wrong over the last couple of weeks,” Burke said. “I think we understood we have what it takes to be a young team that can go far in this tournament. ... Being young isn’t an excuse.”
Michigan hasn’t been to the Final Four since consecutive national championship game appearances in 1992 and 1993 by the Fab Five – Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King – as freshmen and sophomores.
Webber was gone before that 1994 regional final loss to Arkansas in Dallas, and Rose and Howard followed him to the NBA after that.
This is the most successful Michigan season since then, though there is no sense of satisfaction yet.
“You’re not the team until you’re the team. And the only way you can be the team is that you win that championship,” said sixth-year Michigan coach John Beilein, who took West Virginia to a regional final eight years ago. “We want to make sure that they never get satisfied that this great season that we have. We’re trying to get one more (win) every game.”
Donovan, in his 17th season with the Gators, also talked about the uniqueness of this particular season – and this game.
Not the last two trips to regional final games that were lost. Even with so many of the same players.
“I’m not sure what we take from those situations that could really help us get prepared for Michigan. I think this game stands on itself,” Donovan said. “It’s got its own separate identity as itself. It’s in the moment. It’s now, it’s here, it’s present.”