ANN ARBOR, Mich. — You’ve heard the stat. Michigan is 10-0 for the first time since the NCAA-championship season of 1988-89.
Now comes the question. What does it mean? Is this team destined for greatness like the Rice/Robinson championship group or the Traylor/Taylor teams? Do we dare mention this team in the same breath as the Fab Five?
The short answer is yes. There’s already a Big Ten championship banner hanging in the Crisler Center, so no matter what happens this year, this group has made a mark in the history books. They’ve already got more recognition in the rafters than any of the 1990s teams, at least until the NCAA and Mary Sue Coleman change their minds about the flags being kept in storage.
But no one is going to be satisfied if the Trey Burke era finishes with just one Big Ten title, especially since they had to share it with Michigan State and Ohio State. The big question is about this year’s team. Can they pick up another regular-season title and add some tournament success?
Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary have played two games in Madison Square Garden and they will get a look at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center this weekend, but no one knows how they will fare once Big Ten play begins.
“We’ve played some good teams and we’ve gotten to play in some great places,” Stauskas said. “But everyone has told us that Big Ten games are completely different. All of the freshmen know that we’re getting close to that part of the season. It’s exciting.”
Burke and Indiana’s Cody Zeller lit up the Big Ten last year, but that’s certainly not the norm for freshmen. Even the Fab Five only went 11-7 in Big Ten play as freshmen, finishing tied for third in the league, and no one is comparing Stauskas, Robinson and McGary to Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard.
Also, speaking of Zeller, the Big Ten is loaded this season. According to kenpom.com’s computer rankings, the conference has five of the nation’s top 11 teams — Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — with Michigan State also in the Top 20. Illinois is 11-0 and ranked No. 38 in the country, and the computer projects them to go just 8-10 in league play.
Right now, the Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the land, and some very good teams are going to go home empty handed at the end of the season.
Michigan, though, has the talent to avoid that disappointment. While they haven’t played the country’s toughest schedule — Slippery Rock, IUPUI and Cleveland State were the easiest 3-0 start that they could have wished for, and Binghamton might be the worst team in Division I — they have faced a few good teams. Pittsburgh is still rated as a top-10 team, while Kansas State and North Carolina State are inside the top 30, and Michigan beat two of them in New York City.
Thanks to Jordan Morgan and McGary, Michigan has a serious post presence on offense for the first time in John Beilein’s tenure. Add in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Robinson’s ability to attack the basket and Stauskas’s uncanny outside shooting, and it quickly becomes obvious that the Wolverines are going to be able to score with anyone.
They can also play defense, as they showed in New York, holding Pittsburgh and Kansas State to 59.5 points per game while taking the Preseason NIT championship. With Morgan, McGary and Robinson, they are one of the country’s best defensive rebounding teams, so they aren’t giving up the same number of multiple-shot possessions that they did in the past.
But most importantly, they’ve got Burke. He could have gone pro after his freshman year — Darius Morris is playing 20 minutes a game for the Lakers, and there are few Michigan fans who would rank him ahead of Burke — but he chose to come back to compete as a sophomore.
Burke is probably the best point guard in the country, and on this year’s team he won’t have to worry about doing all the passing, all the scoring and managing to lead the team in blocked shots as, well, the point guard.
The Wolverines will probably be 16-0 when they head to Ohio State on Jan. 13, but back-to-back road games against the Buckeyes and Minnesota could quite possibly end the string. That’s the moment that has Beilein worried.
“I had a West Virginia team that had a start like this, and we lost our first game, we came unglued for a little while,” he said. “I’ve told these guys that they are going to lose a game. Probably a few of them.
“Only one team every 30 or 40 years goes unbeaten, so we can’t count on it being us. The key is going to be that, when we do lose, we keep things on track. You have to put it right behind you.”
If they can do that, and they keep playing to the potential that they’ve shown in their pre-Christmas games, the Big Ten championship could very well come down to the last game of the season. Indiana comes to the Crisler Center on March 10, and that game might go a long way to deciding how this group goes down in Michigan history.