On this stage, there's hope and there's proof.

The first is free. The second is earned.

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And with the NCAA tournament down to 16 teams, Michigan can head to Los Angeles this week knowing it has both inside its pocket. The hope that anything's possible and the proof of knowing you can handle this.

Still, there are two separate truths for John Beilein's club as it preps for the Sweet 16.

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Play Texas A&M the way you did for the first 79 minutes and 57 seconds of the tournament and you'll be on a flight back to Ann Arbor on Friday.

Or, find the team that ransacked New York City two weeks ago and win the whole darn thing.

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Michigan is in its fourth Sweet 16 in six years thanks to a somewhat sluggish win over an over-matched Montana squad and a "One Shining Moment" audition tape from Jordan Poole at the horn against a tough Houston club. Wins are wins in the NCAA tournament. There are no style points.

Still, everyone's good from here on out. Michigan's offense lost some of its progress last week in Kansas and the Wolverines are going to need to re-gain that team balance moving forward. There's not much forgiveness this deep into the tournament.

"We're doing some things that (are uncharacteristic), we've got to address them and get better at them," Beilein said after Saturday's game. "We've only lost seven games. But in those seven losses we did things that just don't make sense, they're not characteristic. We got into foul trouble again (Saturday), had some bad turnovers.

"We've got to shake out some of those things and get better."

In many ways, this can be seen as a positive. Michigan didn't play its best in either game last week and still lived to talk about it.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman went 1 of 12 from 3-point range last week and had four turnovers. Moritz Wagner only made seven shots in two games. Michigan committed 36 fouls. It shot 28.3 percent from long range and just 39 percent from the field. None of those numbers are in character for Michigan. And 2-0 is 2-0.

But, for the Wolverines, better proof does exist.

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At the Big Ten tournament in games against Nebraska, Michigan State and Purdue (one team fighting for its life and two 30-win teams), the Wolverines played with an average adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 129.0, per analytic statistician Bart Torvik.

The best offense in the country, per Torvik's metrics, belongs to Villanova, who boasts a score of 130.1. Michigan's offense hasn't been at this level consistently this season and three games is a small sample size. But that's what this team's offensive ceiling looks like against good competition. It's happened before. It's not insane to suggest it could happen again.

And if it does, Michigan's defense -- a unit ranking as the best remaining in this tournament by both Ken Pomeroy and Torvik -- is complete enough to give the Wolverines the type of balance necessary to not only get to the national title game. But to also win it.

"I've had the question asked so many times this year: 'Are you concerned with your team's shooting?' " Beilein said on his radio show Monday. "They're not making every shot and sometimes they'll miss more than they make. But they come back to the median, so I don't get stressed about it. If the stroke looks clean, it's going well.

"We work on it (if it's not). Muhammad (on Monday) made 60 out of 75 3's under duress. He made (11 out of 17) at Madison Square Garden. He misses a few? Big deal. He'll make the next one."

Also, consider the field.

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Michigan's not playing No. 2-seed North Carolina and its high octane offense Thursday. Texas A&M's a really good basketball team, but it played out of its mind (and out of character) in an offensive barrage against the Tar Heels on Sunday. Maybe that happens again. Maybe it doesn't. Either way, the Aggies are a better matchup for Michigan.

The No. 1 (Xavier) in the West Region is also gone. No. 4 Gonzaga, a tough possible matchup for Michigan, and No. 9 Florida State remain. In the South, it's No. 4 Kentucky, No. 9 Kansas State, No. 7 Nevada and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.

Good teams? Absolutely. Teams the Wolverines should be overly afraid of? No.

Michigan is the highest remaining seed on the entire left side of the bracket. The path is there if the Wolverines can get back to playing its best basketball overall.

Michigan has competed against and beaten some of the most talented clubs in America. On the road and on a neutral floor.

The hope is easy. The proof is tougher. You're going to need both if you want to win the whole thing. And even then, nothing is guaranteed.

But the Wolverines are in a great position at the moment, with all their dreams still very much alive. 

This article is written by Nick Baumgardner from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.