Tim Hardaway Jr. opened the scoring with a smooth 3-pointer from the right corner, then Trey Burke added another, dribbling behind a screen for an open shot near the top of the key.
Moments later, Hardaway came breezing across midcourt and snapped a quick pass to freshman Nik Stauskas on the left wing. Another 3-pointer gave Michigan an 11-2 lead.
This is exactly what the Wolverines were hoping for when John Beilein was hired as coach in 2007.
Over the past six seasons, Michigan has built a program that can again challenge for a national championship, and that early flurry against West Virginia on Saturday has become the norm lately. After an 81-66 victory over the Mountaineers, the Wolverines are 11-0 and sitting at No. 2 in the latest AP poll — their highest spot since the Fab Five era.
”We feel if we play our best basketball, we can compete with anybody,” forward Jordan Morgan said. ”We can’t guarantee a win, but we’re going to play hard every game.”
Beilein arrived before the 2007-08 season with a distinguished résumé that included NCAA tournament appearances at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia. He came within a game of the Final Four with the Mountaineers in 2005, but the jury was still out on whether he could help Michigan become one of college basketball’s elite programs again.
For the last three years, the Wolverines have been trending sharply upward. They tied for the Big Ten title last season, and now they have achieved their highest national ranking since the 1992-93 season, when Chris Webber led Michigan to its second straight appearance in the NCAA title game.
Expectations began to soar when Burke decided to stay at Michigan following a terrific freshman campaign in 2011-12. He’s now perhaps the nation’s best point guard.
”The better the challenge, the more he responds individually,” Beilein said. ”He plays beyond his fatigue level, beyond his years.”
Burke is the leader of an offense that is precise, efficient and extremely difficult to defend right now. Beilein’s teams have always done a good job spreading the floor, and there’s not a lot of wasted movement. Players like Burke, Hardaway and freshman Glenn Robinson III have the ability to drive to the basket and finish if there’s no help defensively.
Add in a crafty big man in Morgan and a 3-point threat in Stauskas, and the Wolverines seem to have everything they need for a deep NCAA tournament run. They could use a little more depth, and their defense may be somewhat ordinary by Big Ten standards, but there’s still plenty of time to improve.
Under Beilein, Michigan has never been a team that rushes on offense, but the Wolverines are capable of running, with a more athletic rotation than in seasons past.
”There were times when Jordan Morgan, early in his career, would rebound, but we still struggled with the outlet,” Beilein said. ”Now, the outlet’s much better, and Trey Burke getting the ball up the floor.”
Saturday’s game might have been Burke’s finest as a Wolverine: 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting, eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and no turnovers. And not once did he seem to be forcing the issue or taking unnecessary risks.
A few days later, when Burke showed up for a midweek news conference, the competitive point guard was preparing to go back to the court after losing a game of 1-on-1 to freshman Caris LeVert.
”I’m trying to get back out there to play him right now,” Burke said. ”I’m mad about that.”
Burke and the Wolverines haven’t had to deal with much losing lately. If they can beat Eastern Michigan on Thursday night, they will be 12-0. Only one Michigan team has reached that mark: the 1985-86 group that started 16-0 and went on to win the Big Ten.
For the current Wolverines, each victory seems to raise hopes and expectations even higher — with the most important games still to come.
”We want to be playing our best basketball and win as many games as we can in the Big Ten,” Morgan said. ”And be playing as good as we can toward the end of the year.”