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 finally get another chance to get back to the Final Four.
“It’s definitely crazy,” Burke said. “Just to get this program moving back in the right direction means a lot to us.”
No. 4 seed Michigan (29-7) plays SEC 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 in the second half as they overcame a 14-point deficit against top-seed Kansas. They forced overtime when Burke made 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 after seeing multiple replays of the shot.
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 known as “Billy The Kid” — aka Florida coach Billy Donovan, who will be on the opposite bench when his Gators play in their third consecutive regional final.
Florida has been to this point each of the past two years, but it hasn’t been further since winning consecutive national championships under Donovan in 2006 and 2007.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”