INDIANAPOLIS -- They're a win away from returning to the Final Four, and maybe the championship game again, though this time the Michigan team flight is a little lighter.
There's no Trey Burke, who right now isn't winning anything in the NBA except possibly the Rookie of the Year award, but is being paid handsomely for his pain in Utah. Same for Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the few reasons New Yorkers have to be at all optimistic about the future of the Knicks. Burke and Hardaway, the point guard and the lethal shooter, the top two options for the national champion runner-ups, left early for the pros last summer and left Michigan searching for replacements.
And as they prepare to meet Kentucky for the Midwest Regional title Sunday, the Wolverines will also be without two others who made the 2013 All-Final Four team: Mitch McGary, out since the holidays after lower back surgery, and Spike Albrecht, who's sort of MIA, anyway.
Albrecht is here, he's in uniform and sometimes he's on the floor. But Michigan hasn't seen the Spike Albrecht who almost stole a national championship game last spring, became the most unlikely basketball celebrity in the country and almost gave Justin Verlander competition for the affections of Kate Upton. That guy and those 15 minutes are gone for an overachiever straight out of the movie Hoosiers, an appropriate connection for someone who, like McGary, was a former high school star in Indiana.
It's bittersweet, then, for McGary and Albrecht to find themselves as bit players in the return of the Wolverines, mainly because this is all taking place in a state that holds a soft spot for its own.
"It's different, for me and I'm sure for him, too," said McGary. "But I have all the confidence in the world with this team. When we play as well as we can play, we're definitely capable of going far, although we're not looking past our next game."
Who exactly are these Wolverines, the ones with the tough act to follow? Well, like last year, they're still young, with only one senior in the rotation. They live by the jumper, especially with sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. There's no true superstar, though Stauskas and Robinson might go in the first round of the NBA draft should they leave school early. They're not especially big or tough without McGary and sometimes are too shaky for their own good, as we saw Friday against Tennessee when the Wolverines got slippery with the ball and their decision-making in a two-point win that made coach John Beilein reach for the antacid.
"Obviously, it's a little nerve-racking," said Stauskas. "We practice these (late-game) situations all the time. We try not to panic too much."
The Michigan we see before us needs to protect the ball and make jumpers. Otherwise, they've got little to no shot at beating anyone left in this tourney, not with their lack of size and merely average defense.
"We just try to go out, play our game, and whatever the result is, we're happy with it," said Stauskas.
It's been an unexpectedly rough ride for McGary, who's had an eight-game season and has turned into, quite literally, the biggest Michigan cheerleader. The day before the Tennessee game, he decided he'd had enough of watching from the bench in street clothes. He suited up and took part in the layup line. That sent a buzz from Indianapolis to Ann Arbor, but it was done for his own mental health, not to prepare to see action anytime soon.
"I'm just getting my legs back, just want to feel what it's like to really be part of the team again," said McGary. "Coach Beilein came up to me last week and asked if I wanted to dress up. I feel more connected with my teammates. That's about as close as I get to getting back on the floor. Obviously I'm not going to play."
Last season as a freshman he buzzsawed his way through the NCAA tourney and saw his NBA stock soar. A burly 6'10" power forward with a delicate touch and quick footwork, McGary became a tournament tornado. His damage: 21 points (on 10 for 11 shooting) and 14 rebounds against VCU. Then 25 points and 14 rebounds against Kansas. Against Syracuse in the semifinals he had 12 rebounds and six assists. Suddenly, Michigan was running plays for him, when before, his job was mainly to grab rebounds and score off missed shots. He played decently against Louisville in the title game and would have scored more than six points with more touches; Burke decided to carry the offense that night.
Stardom sort of snuck up on him, almost overnight. McGary had a decision to make shortly after the season: Turn pro or not? Just two months earlier this would have been someone's idea of a cruel joke, but NBA scouts were suddenly talking up McGary who, in a weak draft, was slotted for the middle of the first round. Maybe he could sneak into the lottery. Who saw this coming?
He chose to return to Michigan and then the worst-case scenario happened: A back injury, followed by surgery, followed by what has become a throwaway sophomore season.
"I'm not really thinking about that or trying to re-think any decisions," he said. "I've got a lot of basketball left. I'm only thinking about getting healthy and helping this team."
If McGary's rapid rise during the tourney represented somewhat of a shock, Albrecht's was seismic. Consider: A freshman who scored 84 points all season was thrown into a title game and not only did he not suffer from stage fright, he shook up the Louisville Cardinals and nearly became a national folk hero.
It was a blur, really. A maddening, dreamy blur. Albrecht was inserted into the game after Burke got into early foul trouble and never gave Beilein a reason to take him out. He scored all of his 17 points in the first half and spared Michigan from a certain disaster after losing Burke. Not only did he set the Cardinals on fire, he did the same to Twitter, which almost self-destructed. A basketball country asked, right there during the game: Who is this kid?
"It kinda got a little crazy for about five minutes after that game," Albrecht said. "People knew who I was."
Well, that happens when you not only appear from nowhere in the biggest college game of the year, but have the guts to tweet the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model, hoping Upton saw the game (she did, she was in the stands).
And so: How do you follow that up when you're a 5'11" shooter who, before that Cinderella game, mainly came off the bench?
"Coach challenged me, told me not to let that game be my career highlight," said Albrecht.
Well, guess what? That's his career highlight, so far, anyway.
His high-point game this season is 10. He has doubled his minutes, from 8 to 15 a game, but his role is essentially the same.
"I don't think it's realistic for me to think I could build off that game, from a performance standpoint," he said. "I just came into this season trying to be the best player I could be, and do whatever to help the team get back to the championship game."
They're two wins away from going back. This time, though, it's up to Stauskas and Robinson and their ability to shoot from range, Jordan Morgan if he can stay out of foul trouble against Kentucky's Julius Randle, and maybe Jon Horford, Al's little brother, who must fill the middle against yet another bigger and more physical opponent.
They'll see a Kentucky team that's growing wiser every game. What's interesting won't just be what the Wolverines are bringing, but also what they're not.