Michigan's Spike Albrecht surprised everyone but himself with 17 first-half points in the NCAA championship game. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
At the end of a long day in June, youth basketball players clutch pens and paper inside Ann Arbor's Crisler Center. Michigan had just finished running its annual summer basketball camp, and eager campers stood in line for autographs. The likely suspects drew scores: Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas. But off to the side, quietly gathering his own group of wide-eyed youngsters, was Michael “Spike” Albrecht.
“[Albrecht’s] autograph line at camp was as long or longer than Glenn Robinson’s,” says Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan through subtle laughter. “We teased Glenn about that.”
Robinson, who at the end of last season was pegged as a lock for the first round of the NBA draft and a potential lottery pick, was outshined by 5-foot-11, 175-pound Albrecht, who with his scrawny frame, shaggy bedhead hair, and boyish face looks like he doesn’t belong on the court with the son of a former NBA All-Star. A role player all season, Albrecht was bound to be an afterthought, the seldom-used backup of national player of the year Trey Burke.
Averaging only eight minutes per game, the freshman was thrust into the spotlight on April 8 in the 2013 NCAA National Championship game against Louisville after Burke went to the bench with two early fouls.
“All the guys off the bench, we always work really hard in practice because we never know when our number is going to be called,” says Albrecht. “[My teammates] always tell me when I’m open to shoot it.”
Shoot he did. During a 10-minute stretch in the first half, Albrecht was the talk of the arena. He was trending on Twitter. The excitement in the voice of CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg, and Steve Kerr was second only to incredulity. Seventeen points -- including four three-pointers -- later, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino stared befuddled on the sideline. A player just briefly in their scouting report was singlehandedly beating the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“He was a guy that we thought would be a facilitator,” says Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts. "We knew he was a guy who was capable of making shots, but we didn’t think he could go off for 17.”
Keatts was quick to note that Burke had a similar impact in the first two or three minutes of the game -- a high compliment for Albrecht -- and it was almost as if their gameplan hadn’t changed, but rather shifted. Albrecht and Michigan eventually forced Louisville out of a zone defense and into a man-to-man.
“It was one of the first games I ever busted out laughing,” says Jordan, who is also Albrecht’s position coach. “In practice we had seen him do that, and obviously the stage is different, but we’ve seen Spike make shots. I got a kick out of looking around the entire stadium and seeing the look on everyone else’s face.”
Louisville was terrified of Michigan’s three-point attack and of Stauskas in particular, who the Cardinals coaching staff felt could torch them from his favorite left corner. Louisville blanketed Stauskas and held him to just three points on just two shots. But all that extra attention left Albrecht more room to deliver.
“Spike’s confidence has grown greatly [over the year] and it culminated in that championship game,” Jordan says. “To have a moment like that, to have that springboard him into the rest of his career at Michigan, he knows he belongs.”
The George M. Holmes Convocation Center stands tall at the end of Rivers Street in Boone, N.C., overlooking Appalachian State University. The 8,325-seat arena is nearly 600 miles from the Crisler Center, and it’s where Albrecht nearly called home.
Under-recruited as a high school senior in Crown Point, Ind., Albrecht opted for a year of post-graduate school at Northfield Mount Hermon Prep in Massachusetts. Few offers came from schools in power conferences, so Albrecht had his sights set on Appalachian State, a school in desperate need of a point guard and a coach excited to utilize Albrecht’s fiery competitiveness.
“Albrecht has a huge chip on his shoulder,” says Appalachian State basketball coach Jason Capel. “If you look at him he’s not the first guy you’re going to pick to be on your team, but the second you see him start playing you realize that his team is going to win more games than not. I recruited him hard, and I thought we had him.”
That’s just what Michigan coach John Beilein had in mind when he first saw Albrecht. Despite his lack of size and raw athleticism, the Wolverines coaching staff admired his attitude and drive. In May 2012, just a month after Albrecht sat with Capel at the 2012 NCAA Final Four and were discussing an official visit, Albrecht signed his Letter of Intent to play for Michigan.
“I was really thankful and grateful for coach [John] Beilein to offer me a scholarship,” Albrecht says. “He took a chance on me.”
Unfortunately for Albrecht, the opportunity to play — let alone start — was slim. Burke held firm control of the point guard position, but it was just Burke’s presence that ultimately swung Albrecht away from Appalachian State and into a Michigan uniform.
“A lot of people thought that with Trey coming back that I would not want to be at Michigan,” Albrecht says, "but that was silly. I wanted to learn from Trey because I knew how good he was. I was able to practice against him every day and it made me so much better.”
With Burke’s going to the NBA, Albrecht still has work to do to earn the starting spot. Derrick Walton, one of the top recruits in the country, will join the backcourt, but Beilein has made it very clear that the position is entirely up for grabs. Albrecht is fond of Walton already -- he calls him “a fabulous point guard and a really good kid” -- but it won’t deter Albrecht from giving the incoming freshman from Detroit a run for his money.
During practice last season, Burke was driving past Albrecht with exceptional ease. Time and time again, Burke beat Albrecht off the dribble and either kicked the ball out to an open shooter or took the ball all the way to the rim. Albrecht was exhausted and visibly irritated.
“He would get upset with himself when he couldn’t guard Trey, and I’d have to tell him, ‘Don’t get too down on yourself, just keep working at it,’” Jordan says. Then he laughs. “I’d say, ‘Listen, Spike, there’s not a whole lot of guys who can [guard him].’”
For much of his life, Albrecht has felt like the underdog. He’s gotten used to it. But he doesn’t view his success at such a high level as any more special than anyone else’s. He’s simply doing what he knew he could do all along and writing thank yous to the people who have helped him along the way.
“For me to perform on the national stage,” Albrecht says, “it’s my way of giving back to Michigan and Coach Beilein.”
But Beilein wasn’t the only coach that Albrecht impressed. Capel’s phone was buzzing during the first half of the NCAA Championship game with calls and texts from people who knew that Albrecht had been close to signing with Appalachian State. Capel sent a text of his own after the game to the Mountaineer who never was.
“I told him I was proud of him and the job he had done all year,” Capel says. “Because of his confidence, his moxie, I thought he could win some games no matter what level it was.”
Albrecht is aware of what will be expected from him in the coming season. His coaches want him to take on a bigger role of leading the team on the court and in the locker room. They want him to be a leader and not to defer to older players, much like the responsibility he took upon himself back in April. But he refuses to let the newly acquired fame keep Spike from being Spike.
“He handles the situation with class,” Jordan says, “like a Michigan man should. He’s still humble and he gets a little red in the cheeks with all the attention and he’s still little old Spike to most everybody.”
With the season still a few months away, Albrecht knows he needs to get better. His presence will no longer surprise teams, and they’ll be expecting what he brings to the table. He’ll be on opposing teams’ scouting reports. They’ll scheme ways to slow him down. But it’s not his physical abilities that will cause teams headaches. Albrecht matter-of-factly cites a laundry list of things at which he doesn’t believe he excels: shooting, ball-handling, athleticism, the list continues. But, he admits, he’ll always be in the right position at the right time, and that spells trouble.
“Spike came here because he wanted to be a part of Michigan and he wanted to help us win,” says Jordan proudly. “We always believed in him. Externally, more people now believe in him than on the way in.”
They certainly do.