ANN ARBOR, Mich. | Now that Michigan has finally made it back to the second week of the NCAA tournament, coach John Beilein will admit that, yes, this was a pretty important step for the Wolverines.
"We were really proud that we could get the team to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and get back there in '11. That only can go so far," Beilein said. "You've got to keep getting better. To get past this point was good for our program."
Before the tournament, Beilein said Michigan would keep progressing no matter what happened. The Wolverines play several freshmen and have been recruiting well in recent years.
But for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this season, another early exit from this tournament would have been jarring.
Instead, Michigan (28-7) is in the round of 16 for the first time since 1994, set to take on Kansas on Friday in Arlington, Texas, at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
"We're definitely proud, honored to be able to play in the Sweet 16," guard Trey Burke said. "It feels so good just because last year, it was so devastating."
Last year, the Wolverines lost their NCAA tournament opener to 13th-seeded Ohio. It was a sour way to end a season in which Michigan tied for its first Big Ten title since 1986, but when Burke decided to stay in school after considering an NBA jump, expectations were high for 2012-13.
The Wolverines earned their first No. 1 ranking since the Fab Five era, but after a 20-1 start, Michigan stumbled a bit down the stretch in an extremely competitive Big Ten. Beilein never showed any public signs of panic, stressing the fact that his team was young and needed positive reinforcement.
"I think with the makeup of our roster, it was really important to keep going in a positive direction. I think it was essential to our success," Beilein said Tuesday. "We had the makeup of this roster in our mind in every coaching session. What can they handle? What is best for them? What keeps them going?"
Michigan fell all the way to a No. 4 seed, but the Wolverines looked confident in their first two NCAA tournament games, dispatching South Dakota State 71-56 and then routing Virginia Commonwealth 78-53.
That second matchup was a true head turner. VCU won its tournament opener by 46, and its aggressive full-court press was supposed to be particularly hard to prepare for in a short period of time. Michigan barely looked bothered, playing a brilliant all-around game in front of an appreciative home-state crowd in Auburn Hills.
"We know we've got to be poised and we've got to make smart plays while we're out there," guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "But Coach Beilein always trusts us to just go out there and have fun, and if you keep doing that, then we go a long way."
Michigan's ability to take care of the ball was crucial against VCU, but Kansas (31-5) doesn't need to force a lot of turnovers to play good defense. With Jeff Withey patrolling the area around the basket for the Jayhawks, the Wolverines may need to be sharp from the perimeter.
"They defend both," Beilein said. "You are going to get some open shots. It's really important that you're able to make those. You can't be missing layups. You can't be missing a wide open 3 too often. You've got to nail those, because you're also going to get some tough 2s. We just hope it's not very windy in the dome down there."
Of course, the fact that Michigan is playing in a giant venue like this is a sign that the stakes are growing. Beilein has advanced this far in the NCAA tournament before — twice with West Virginia — but this is the Wolverines' first appearance in the regional semifinals since he took over as their coach.
"You know you're going to have peaks and valleys, and you ride them out and stay positive," Beilein said. "I told the team (Monday), 'It's month five. There's going to be four teams that are going to make it to the Final Four that didn't give in to a season of hard travels and whatever. We've just got to keep plugging on. Four are going to do it. Why not us?'"