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College Basketball: Michigan’s McLimans soaks in Sweet 16 experience

Blake McLimans has turned into a senior leader and helped mold the chemistry for a talented Michigan team readying to play in the NCAA Tournament\'s Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan)
Not many basketball players get to experience what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament, let alone making it to the second weekend for the Sweet 16.

Though Michigan’s Blake McLimans may not be one of the Wolverines’ mainstays on the floor, the Hamburg native is enjoying this ride, while embracing his role as a senior leader and appreciating the friendships he’s made along the way.

The Michigan men’s basketball team will be making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1994 when it meets the South Region’s top seed Kansas on Friday, March 29 starting a little after 7:30 p.m. in North Texas.

The fourth-seeded Wolverines, who at one point this season were ranked No. 1 in the nation, beat the South’s No. 13 South Dakota State 71-56 in the tournament’s opening round and then easily handled No. 5 VCU 78-53 in what was considered one of the showdowns of the Round of 32.

“It’s incredible to be where we are,” said the 6-foot-10 forward, who graduated from Hamburg High School in 2008. “I knew before the season we had a great team and we’re proving it now. We’re extremely excited and we hope to be just as successful the rest of the way.”

It’s McLimans’ third time as a member of a team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament but his first shot to see a Sweet 16. As a sophomore, Michigan advanced to the Round of 32 before being eliminated by national power Duke. Last season, Michigan made it but was one-and-done.

Although Michigan is a traditional power in Division I basketball — having won a national championship in 1989 and making two finals appearances in the early 90s with “The Fab Five,” the Wolverines weren’t always a tournament-bound team. Buffalo native John Beilein inherited a team in its final season of scholarship reductions that finished 10-22 during the 2007-08 season.

In the head coach’s second season, Michigan earned a NCAA tournament bid for the first time in 11 seasons, but in McLimans’ freshman year (2009-10), the Wolverines posted a 15-17 record. That was the last time he’d experience a losing season.

In his sophomore campaign (2010-11) Michigan finished 21-14, then 24-10 with a share of the Big-10 regular season title as a junior (2011-12), before this year, posting a 27-6 mark, the most victories by a team coached by Beilein, who’s won 20-plus games with four different Division I programs.

“There’s been an evolution here, every single year it’s gotten better,” said McLimans, who will graduate this May with a degree in economics. “The main goal to start was to make the NCAA Tournament. The second year, we accomplished that. Then we won the Big 10 championship last year. Now we want to get as far as we can in the tournament and we have the opportunity to do that. It’s unbelievable to see the program get back to where it was.”

This year’s team is immensely talented, featuring some of the biggest names and finest playmakers in the nation. Trey Burke is considered one of the best guards in the nation, while Tim Hardaway III and Glenn Robinson have carried on family traditions of basketball excellence from their former NBA-playing fathers. Freshman power forward Mitch McGarry has also made a name for himself during the season and into the tournament.

While the talent is clearly apparent, McLimans also notes that a major asset just as vital has been the team’s togetherness. He believes his team’s defense, run and fun style and sharing of the ball have made the offense go.

“I get asked what makes our team so good all the time and there is extremely great talent here, but our most outstanding attribute is the chemistry,” McLimans said. “I know people say its cliche, but everyone really does get along, knows their role and really grasps the concept of a team.”

But having some of the finest talent in the country has also meant less playing time for others and been a factor in keeping McLimans, a big man who was expected to contribute with a smooth stroke from the perimeter, relegated to a bench player.

After red-shirting as a freshman, McLimans has scored 65 points on 27 field goals, including eight three-pointers, in three seasons. He’s added 17 blocked shots and 54 rebounds, including one in the final minute of the team’s win over VCU last round. His minutes have actually declined since he played 135 as a sophomore.

“I’ve never really thought about it like, ‘this stinks because I’m not playing,’” McLimans said. “I truly feel and believe whatever coach wants from me, I’ll try my best to do it and if our team succeeds that’s all that matters. My main goal is seeing this team succeed.”

He’s actually taken a liking to a role as a senior mentor to the many youngsters on the team and as a scout team player in practice helping the starters prepare for each and every opponent, including big tests like the one Kansas will present Friday.

Since he’s been to the tournament three times and now understands the expectations, he’s trying to assist any of the younger players seeking advice during such a hectic time.

“My role is obviously not as much on the court; it’s about what I bring to practice and as a senior, helping my teammates when they need it,” McLimans said. “I take pride in preparing them for their opponents game by game. The coaches are able to give them a few things, but I’m also there to be a peer advisor. It’s something I’ve taken quite seriously.”

McLimans has taken his cue as a leader from Beilein, who he has a great deal of respect for and much in common with since they both hail from Buffalo. When Beilein first was recruiting him during a one-year stint playing for Worcester prep school, McLimans didn’t know much of Michigan but was willing to follow the coach wherever it would take him. McLimans has not regretted that decision.

“The knowledge he has is second to none,” McLimans said of Beilein. “There is a strong core relationship between what he teaches and success. He’s great in making you understand a concept and then it translating onto the court.”

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