CHAMPAIGN — Forget about the No. 1 ranking for a second.
Forget about everything you think it means to be labeled as the top team in the nation during the middle of the college basketball season. Forget about all of the supposed glory and bragging rights that come with it for just one moment.
Because for all the hype and hoopla that will be made about the rankings following Michigan’s 74-60 victory against Illinois on Sunday — and there is a very good chance that the Wolverines will assume the No. 1 ranking when the polls are released Monday — what the Wolverines did Sunday is far more important than anything that will happen the next day. What they did on Sunday was show growth and maturation. They showed that they are a continually improving team, whether or not their ranking shows it.
Two weeks ago, Michigan couldn’t handle the pressure. Then, the second-ranked Wolverines walked into Value City Arena in Columbus with that coveted top spot within reach. On that Sunday, just three days after then-No. 1 Duke faltered against North Carolina State, they were almost assured of becoming the top-ranked team in the country with a victory.
But Michigan came out flat, lacking energy in the first half against the Buckeyes, fizzling under the pressure. The freshmen showed nerves and inexperience. The Wolverines tumbled their way to a 21-point deficit in the early going of that contest, only to have a failed late-game comeback.
Fast-forward to two weeks later. After a quick re-scrambling of the top-ranked teams in the national polls, Michigan found itself in the same exact position on Sunday, trailing only Duke in the rankings. And with Duke’s loss earlier last week, the Wolverines were offered another opportunity to seize that desired top ranking.
Only Michigan did more than that with its victory. The Wolverines demonstrated that they could handle the hype, that the target on their back hadn’t gotten too big. They played like a much-improved team from two weeks ago.
Michigan came out with life on Sunday. The guards pushed the ball, and the bigs played the aggressors on the glass. And most important of all, the freshmen rose to the occasion.
Swingman Nik Stauskas led the team with nine early points, and together with forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, the first-year players accounted for more than half of the team’s 35 first-half points. The difference between two weeks ago and Sunday was apparent to sophomore guard Trey Burke.
“I think the freshmen did a good job of stepping up and not playing out of control,” Burke said. “They stayed poised.”
But that wasn’t all. When redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan exited with a sprained ankle just minutes into the game, the reserve forwards came off the bench to play a huge role in his absence. McGary, redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford and redshirt freshman forward Max Bielfeldt combined for 17 points and 14 rebounds, including eight boards on the offensive end.
This should have been a tightly contested matchup, and yet, Michigan turned in another double-digit victory.
Sure, Illinois is no Ohio State (mind you, Illinois did beat the Buckeyes by 19 points three weeks ago), but a road win in the Big Ten is a road win in the Big Ten, especially when you have a large target on your back and a possible No. 1 ranking in your sights.
But to the Wolverines, it isn’t about the rankings. It’s not about where they stand now, but about where they’ll stand come March. It’s about winning on the road and growing as a team.
Beilein might have said that best following Sunday’s victory.
“It’s Jan. 27 and not one of you in here can remember who was No. 1 last Jan. (27),” he said. “So to our team, that (ranking) really does not make a big difference. I’m sure to a lot of our fans at water coolers and in coffee shops, and to people who love Michigan and hate Michigan, it’s probably something that they hate or they love right now.”
Yes, it’s coach-speak, cliché to the max. But it’s true. The rankings mean nothing. The Wolverines showed they are continually improving, and that’s a scary thought for the rest of the country.
So don’t get hung up on that number, the new digit that will assuredly loom large likely positioned next to Michigan’s name come Monday.
Try to forget about that No. 1 ranking — because the Wolverines certainly have.