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March 4, 2014

U-M not satisfied by outright B1G title

Despite a 14-3 conference record, despite the program's first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 1986, despite the 7-2 road record in the league (the best since the Fab Five era), despite the season sweep of in-state rival Michigan State, the Wolverines have never allowed themselves to feel a sense of accomplishment.

That word inherently implies finality - and nothing about the 2014 season is over, yet.

At a media availability before Tuesday night's 84-53 win at Illinois, fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan said that was a lesson he learned the hard way after Michigan won a share of the 2012 Big Ten Championship. That year, the Wolverines went into the NCAA Tournament, already feeling a sense of accomplishment, having earned the program's first banner in decades. The were upset in the first round by Ohio, coached by the same man, John Groce, who was wearing a bright-orange blazer on Illinois' bench Tuesday night.

So, if Morgan wasn't as impressed as the fans watching on TV by Michigan's 31-point obliteration of the Fighting Illini, you'll have to excuse him.

When asked about sophomore guard Nik Stauskas' dominating offensive performance in the victory, Morgan said, with a chuckle, "Yeah, it wasn't good enough. He fell short of the record."

Stauskas finished with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including a 7-of-9 mark from three-point range. He became the first Wolverine since Dion Harris vs. Penn State Feb. 1, 2006 to make seven triples in a game.

Just two Michigan players have ever hit more three-pointers in a game than Stauskas did Tuesday night: Garde Thompson connected on nine against Navy in 1987, and Glen Rice knocked down eight in the NCAA Tournament against North Carolina in 1989.

"No, he was hot," Morgan continued. "It was people moving the ball. There weren't many times when we forced shots. We were all very conscious of trying to get the best shot for the team."

"I think we were doing a great job of moving the ball around and finding the open man today," added Stauskas. "That was really the key for us. It's kind of contagious. One guy gets going, and we all feed off of it. As a team, I think we played pretty well. That was some of the best basketball we've played yet.

"It's tough. When teams are hitting a lot of threes, it's tough to be them. We understand that we're not going to shoot like this every game, though. Our defense still has to be there, and our ball movement and offense still have to be there. It's nice when they're dropping, though."

Stauskas wasn't the only one feeling it Tuesday night. The Wolverines shot 56.9 percent from the field (29-of-51) and an incredible 69.6 percent from three-point range (16-of-23).

This, against an Illinois team that came into the game having held its last four opponents under the 50-point mark. The Wolverines finished with 52 points - in the first half.

"We just came out with the right intensity that we wanted to win this thing outright," sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III said. "That has been our mindset since the beginning of the season. We didn't want to share it. This whole week, everyone had great focus in practice, and great preparation."

The Wolverines surged Tuesday night, because they knew how close they were to that outright title, which - after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. to the NBA and Mitch McGary to injury - seemed like a pipe dream, at least to those outside the locker room.

"At the beginning of the season, we made goals as a team," Robinson said. "We did that way back in the summer. The Big Ten title was everyone's goal, right down the line. When people started to say we couldn't do it, with Mitch out and Tim and Trey leaving, we all wanted to step up and play our role. We have been doing that. We're doing a great job of playing together as a team."

That wasn't the only goal the team came up with.

And they don't want to settle for just one checkmark on that list.

Michigan will be the No. 1 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament, and, of course, The Big Dance is just around the corner, with the chance to make a repeat run to the Final Four that no one saw coming after a 6-4 start.

"Not really," said redshirt junior forward Jon Horford, when asked if there was a big celebration after the win. "We understand that there are greater things ahead. That is a big accomplishment, but there is still a long road. We know we have to stay focused and be ready."

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