(AP) — After passing its first true test, Michigan feels confident and prepared heading into the final of the NIT Season Tipoff.
The fourth-ranked Wolverines expect to get another stiff challenge against Kansas State in Friday’s title game at Madison Square Garden.
Michigan (4-0) faced little adversity while winning its first three games by an average 35.0 points, but had to work hard Wednesday for its first Tipoff victory in five tries at MSG. Trey Burke had 17 points with six assists, Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 16 and the Wolverines overcame poor 3-point shooting as well as a second-half deficit to beat Pittsburgh 67-62 in the semifinals.
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“With this team, we know we need to stay grounded, humble, stay together,” said Burke, averaging team highs of 18.0 points and 7.5 assists.
The Wolverines shot 53.1 percent from beyond the arc in their first three games but went 3 of 17 against Pitt. Hardaway was 1 of 7 on 3-point tries after entering the contest 8 for 11, and Burke is 1 for 8 over the last two games after going 6 for 12 in the first two.
The long-distance struggles and Pitt’s up-tempo offense left Michigan facing deficits of eight points in the first half and six in the second before the Wolverines employed a 1-3-1 zone that slowed down the Panthers. After regaining the lead, Michigan made eight straight free throws to secure a win that was aided by a 37-26 rebounding advantage over the taller Panthers.
“I think (coach John Beilein) trusted the three-zone enough for us to go to it,” Burke said.
While that strategy paid off Friday, the Wolverines also learned they have the experience and attitude to handle themselves in tight situations.
“The coaches do a good job of putting us in those scenarios,” Burke said. “When it comes to game-time we just tell each other to win the game, shoot with confidence.”
Michigan could face another sizable task in its first meeting with Kansas State (5-0) since an 82-71 loss Nov. 25, 2002. The Wildcats earned a spot in the title game with a 66-63 win over Delaware on Wednesday.
“They’re going to give us their best game, just like we’re going to do on Friday as well,” said Hardaway, averaging 17.0 points. “Preparation is key to try to get a win.”
Though the schools don’t play often, their respective systems should not be foreign to the coaches involved. First-year Kansas State coach Bruce Weber spent the last eight seasons coaching against Michigan while at Illinois. Weber, who went 5-5 against the Wolverines since Beilein took over in 2007, is excited for the challenge.
“You have a chance to play in the championship game of the NIT, one of the most prestigious tournaments around, and especially preseason,” he said. “For us it’s a big step. If you want to be good, you have to play good teams and learn.”
This is the first test against a major conference program for Kansas State, which was 4-5 versus ranked teams last season.
Will Spradling was one of three Wildcats with 12 points Wednesday and made four free throws in the final 30 seconds to help his team overcome a 38.5-percent shooting effort.
If Kansas State is to have a chance Friday, it will likely need guard Rodney McGruder to pick up his game. The senior averaged a team-leading 15.8 points in 2011-12 but is scoring 10.0 per game on 38.9 percent shooting this season.