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January 31, 2013ESPN's Gameday will be in Bloomington, Ind. Saturday for what's become one of the most anticipated games of the year between Indiana and Michigan, and both teams proved they're ready with impressive wins Thursday night. U-M's climb to No. 1 might be a surprise to some who followed during the program's darkest days, but some fully expected to be there.
It wasn't long ago, remember, when recruits like Syracuse (N.Y.) big man Ben Cronin - one of John Beilein's first recruits at Michigan - asked if the Wolverines had "ever been good in basketball." Others, like Michigan State's Russell Byrd, said it would be a "leap of faith" to join Beilein's team, even though the coach was passionate in his vision and unwavering in his belief that U-M could be one of the top programs in the country.
It's come to fruition, with Thursday's 68-46 victory over Northwestern the epitome of what he envisioned, and redshirt sophomore center Jon Horford, who stepped in admirably for injured Jordan Morgan, is one who isn't surprised.
"Yes," he said when asked if he expected to be playing for the nation's No. 1 team at Michigan. "We talked about this all the time."
There was a lull to start the second half, and junior Tim Hardaway Jr. uncharacteristically struggled on the offensive end (seven points, 3-for-10 shooting). But the positives, including two total turnovers, freshman Nik Stauskas' "return" (though he never went anywhere, Beilein would later explain with a laugh) and the total selflessness with which they played demonstrated why the Wolverines have risen to No. 1 in the country.
"The assist numbers were really something, weren't they?" Beilein said of U-M's 10 against only one turnover in the first half, 14 to two overall. "We have to hit singles, and Trey [Burke] set the tone early. He found Nik, Tim, the big man - he did a tremendous job.
"That's really how we have to play. Guys will get their openings, but there's a lot of sacrificing going on out there. It's hard for kids today to sacrifice for the team. There are moments it's very difficult for our guys, but most of the time they make the right decision."
It was evident in the first half on an around the world possession in which freshman Glenn Robinson III passed up a good shot behind the arc for a better one for Hardaway. Hardaway passed up that look to set up Stauskas for an uncontested triple that made it 10-7, and the Wolverines were on their way.
Burke, an All-American and frontrunner for player of the year, hit the floor for loose balls as though the national championship were on the line. Freshman big man Mitch McGary (six points, 11 rebounds in 19 minutes) laid out for a save that set up a Burke to Hardaway triple that made it 29-18 in the first half, bringing the sold out Crisler Arena crowd to its feet.
Many of the long time season ticket holders have seen Michigan basketball at its finest. Some would argue they've never seen it like this.
The unselfishness, too, was on display the night before the game, when Beilein had to decide who to start in place of injured Jordan Morgan (ankle).
"We were still here at 8:00 Tuesday night and I said to Mitch, 'what do you feel like about tomorrow? I don't know what to do - you've both been practicing well,'" Beilein recalled. "He said, 'Coach, I've been coming off the bench for two years. I'm cool with coming off the bench.' That really helped make that decision.
"That's what we have on this team. Jon [Horford] was elated by it, obviously, but if was the other way, Jon would have done the same thing. Jon would have said, 'Coach, whatever you want. I'm ready.'"
He proved it in scoring 10, second half points and grabbing seven total rebounds, providing great energy. Beilein borrowed "the team, the team, the team" from the football program - "the expectation is for the position" might be his next given how well his deep group rallied from adversity.
Combine it with great talent and attitude and the result is a 20-win team in January, the nation's No. 1 team and a realistic shot to go into Bloomington Saturday night and beat Indiana's best team in years.
"[Being No. 1] is important, but we want our guys say, 'that's not important now,'" Beilein said. "What's important is eating right and getting ready for the next game. Down the way, when the season is over, we can talk about that.
"We embrace it more than I give up, this moment of being No. 1, but we're not focused on, 'we made it.' We've got a long way to go."
That includes several tough Big Ten games, what's certain to be a grueling Big Ten Tournament and then a realistic run at a national championship. A long way to go, for sure - but also an indication of how far they've already come.
"I'm so proud of the way we guarded them," he said. "That team is developing right in front of your eyes from when we them just a month ago. They're going to get better and better, and we saw that evidenced in their wins over Minnesota and at Illinois. That was difficult scouting for our coaching staff.
"They get to the foul line 21 times a game. Reggie Hearn gets there eight times a game. That's a high number. We did a good job of not fouling - I did not like early way we were guarding them, but it takes time."
"He's responding really well," Beilein said. "That's a credit to Jon Sanderson and all the work he does with prehab, ankle mobility. Kids bounce back much more.
"That's a break 10 or 20 years ago. He's done a great job in the weight room to prevent further injury."
"That was always something we looked for starting at Erie Community College," he said. "We played 35 to get 20, but we got 20.
"It feels good. We'll enjoy it for the moment, but now we have 30, 31 games. If you're going to be in the NCAA Tournament, you'd better win at least 20. "
"He was not happy with his shooting," Beilein said. "I isolated him a lot just because of the way they were playing us. He took a high volume of shots and he didn't like his numbers. He was in the gym after training table today getting shots up. He understands technically where he has little slip ups here and there."
"That's just Nik," he said. "Nik's favorite saying, we'll give him all this stuff and ask, 'you all right?' He'll say, 'Coach, it's just hoops. That all it is. Just hoops.' So we say, 'okay, Nik, it's just hoops.'
"That's how he acts. He's an interesting young man that this team really loves."
Follow Chris Balas on Twitter: @Balas_Wolverine