Michigan stakes its claim to No. 1

Everyone we spoke with who had experience with John Beilein said it when the coach was first hired at Michigan, albeit with a bit of variety: "He's going to win, and win big." A year after leading the Wolverines to a share of the Big Ten title, Beilein and his staff have led U-M to the pinnacle as the nation's top team following an impressive, 74-60 win at Illinois.
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U-M is almost assured of the No. 1 ranking after its latest impressive win, coupled with Duke's blowout loss at Miami early in the week. The Wolverines are almost just as likely to lose it in the next several weeks - such is life in the Big Ten, where it seems every next game is tougher than the last.
"I think it means probably a lot for our fans, but for our team right now, we're just taking it a day at time," Beilein told the Big Ten Network. "I know it's coachspeak, but our whole thing is just to get better every day."
His kids get it, and it's obvious in how hard they play. There was a collective glint in their eye last week, however, when they were asked what the No. 1 ranking would mean to the program. Freshman Nik Stauskas (12 points) once held out for "bigger" offers when U-M coaches first extended theirs - now he'll start for the nation's No. 1 team in his first year.
Several in ACC country questioned why fellow frosh Mitch McGary would turn down Duke to play for an "unproven" in Michigan, in a supposed weaker conference.
Now they know.
The Wolverines are playing a brand of basketball that's exciting their signed recruits and capturing the attention of several in the classes of 2014 and '15. There are superstars without ego, and everyone seems to improve. That was on display again Sunday when starting center Jordan Morgan went down - McGary, Jon Horford and Max Bielfeldt made it so Michigan didn't miss a beat on either end of the floor.
"We're only as good as the individual defenders we have in between [on defense]," Beilein said. "Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke right now really have gotten into this. They've got challenges every night when somebody's guarding them, but you know what? Those two guys can guard. Nick Stauskas has made huge strides, and Glenn Robinson has become a great defender, and whey they got us in foul trouble, we had three guys coming in. That really helped."
The team rallied around them, Burke said.
"Jordan is like our corporal on the defensive end, our senior, the guy who keeps it together," he said. "When he went down, we got together as a team and said it was time for Jon and Max to step up. That's what they did today."
They gave a little extra when Bielfeldt supplied key plays on the offensive end, rebounding from an airballed free throw to provide key minutes for the team reluctant to offer the Illinois native a scholarship. He's yet another example of Beilein and staff's eye for talent, an undersized forward who will nonetheless provide key minutes for one of the nation's top young programs - not just this year, but in the years to come.
"I don't think anybody will remember next year who was No. 1 at the end of January," Beilein said. "But we're going to be as good as we can be by the end of the season, I guarantee it. Wherever that takes us, that takes us."
For a team still just scratching the surface of its potential, that could realistically be to the school's second national title.
Morgan's injured ankle, suffered in the first few minutes, will be evaluated again this week.
"I know he has a sprained ankle, enough that he could not put weight on it," Beilein said. "We would have played him if he could go. We need him every day out there. He elected not to; we didn't want to hurt it anymore.
"But how about Bielfeldt? He throws up the airball, misses the second one, then was really a monster and did a great job after that. Jordan Morgan is our glue man defensively, but we really operated well without him. We told them get this one for No. 52, because he'd love to be out there."
Horford will continue to earn minutes following his second straight impressive outing.
"For him to get where he needs to be, he needs reps in practice and games," Beilein said, noting injuries had robbed him of that this year and last. "I thought he played really well against Purdue, practiced well the last couple days."
He'll get more opportunities with Morgan on the sideline, as well.