John Beilein isn’t going to celebrate when Michigan officially becomes the top-ranked team in the nation Monday morning.
After 20 years, though, he knows that his fan base is going to enjoy it.
“This is great for our fans and it is going to be great for the coffee shops tomorrow,” Beilein said on the postgame radio show following the Wolverines’ 74-60 victory at Illinois on Sunday. “Those are the people that are helping us sell out every game we play, home and away.”
Michigan entered the game knowing that, with No. 1 Duke having lost earlier in the week, a victory in Champaign would almost certainly move the Wolverines into the top spot.
The key was making sure not to care.
“Yeah, I think we’re the No. 1 team right now,” said Trey Burke, who finished with 19 points. “But you don’t get a banner for being No. 1 in January.”
At 19-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines are having their best season since the Fab Five reached No. 1 in 1992. But like that team, it won’t matter if they don’t win something in March.
“No one remembers who was No. 1 at the end of January last season, but everyone remembers who won the national championship,” Beilein said. “I know this sounds like coach-speak, but this team is really focused on taking things one game at a time.
“If we keep getting better a day at a time, we’ll have a chance to do what we want to do — win a Big Ten championship and a national championship.”
Things got off to a rough start for the Wolverines when Jordan Morgan badly sprained his ankle in the first 90 seconds. That meant more minutes for freshman Mitch McGary as well as little-used Max Bielfeldt and injury-prone Jon Horford. They combined for 17 points and 14 rebounds.
“The team needed me to step up when J-Mo went down, and it felt great to be able to do that,” said Horford, who only returned this week from a knee injury. “Jordan’s been a huge part of this team for the last few years, but we know that we’ve got guys who can man up and do the job if he needs us.”
Morgan didn’t return to the game, so Bielfeldt and Horford could be seeing more action in upcoming games.
“I’m really proud of Max and Jon tonight,” Beilein said. “Max has been dying for minutes, and Jon has been fighting through injuries and fighting through injuries.
“Jordan’s got a pretty good sprain in that ankle, so they’re going to be out there.”
The Illini looked like a solid Big Ten force when they routed Ohio State at home on Jan. 5, but they’ve lost four of five since then.
On Sunday, the Wolverines did to them what they’ve done to teams all season, grinding them down on both ends. Michigan shot better than 50 percent, held Illinois to 37 percent, forced turnovers and kept the Illini off the free-throw line.
“To win championships in the Big Ten, you have to be able to do this,” Beilein said. “You have to be able to go into a loud arena and win games. That’s why this team is good. We’re able to do that.”
In a notoriously tough place to play, Michigan got a combined 32 points from McGary and his fellow freshmen, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
“We knew that it was going to get loud in here when Illinois got on any kind of run, and we had told the freshmen what to expect,” Burke said. “But they did a great job of keeping their poise, no matter how crazy the fans got in here. They did a damn good job tonight.”
The only bad news from Michigan’s talented first-year class might have been Robinson’s 12 points, seven rebounds and one spectacular (unofficial) block. Robinson ran down an Illini fast break and swatted away a teardrop jumper at the top of its arc — a play that, even if he didn’t get credited with a block in the box score, is going to have NBA teams paying even more attention to his short-term future.
“Glenn was everywhere in the first half on both ends of the floor,” Beilein said. “He was making shots, grabbing rebounds and he has turned into a great defender. That was a very good performance from him.”
Like Burke, Robinson isn’t likely to have a lengthy college career. But on a team that looks this much like a title contender, having a couple guys playing at an NBA level is a pretty good problem to have.