For those of you who were home, vacationing or working over winter break, let me fill you in on one rather important bit of news: The Michigan basketball team beat a ranked opponent.

Ariel Bond/Daily
Michigan head coach John Beilein, assistant coach John Mahoney, and Blake McLimans watch Michigan play Ohio State at Crisler Arena on Sunday, January 3, 2010. The Wolverines won 73-64.

Inhale. Exhale. Breaaaathe.

It actually happened.

The Wolverines beat Ohio State, who was ranked No. 15 in the nation, last Sunday at Crisler Arena. (I promise.)

After loss upon loss to talented — as well as, frankly, mediocre — teams, let’s just say fans weren’t expecting a big win from the Wolverines. Yet here we are, mere days into the new year, and finally, Michigan has the closest thing to a signature win it can muster.

But before we all jump back onto the NCAA Tournament bandwagon, let’s consider what this win actually means.

First of all, it is a big win, it is a big deal. The Wolverines looked the best they have all season hands down.

Michigan retained focus for nearly the entire game — for the first time all season.

Junior guard Manny Harris and senior forward DeShawn Sims were electric, combining for 52 of Michigan’s 73 points (on just 34 shots, too). Even the role players, like sophomore Stu Douglass and freshmen Darius Morris and Matt Vogrich, all stepped up to complement the two-star show.

That’s the good news, and it’s about time there’s good news to discuss.

But here’s the reality check: Michigan still has a huge hill to climb after its terrible start to the season.

Actually, it’s more than a hill. Let’s call it a mountain.

The Wolverines went 0-5 against the teams you’ve heard of — ranging from run-of-the-mill Boston College to top-notch Kansas — and they blew every chance they had to pick up a quality and/or signature win before the Big Ten season. Now, the only nonconference shot at a resume-building win is No. 13 Connecticut. One victory like that doesn’t always cut it, either. Oh, and UConn is good.

That brings us to Big Ten season.

Let’s start with Sunday’s win over No. 15 Ohio State. I know the ranking was right there next to the Buckeyes’ name, but it certainly didn’t feel like a true No. 15 team playing out there. Without junior sensation Evan Turner (back injury), Ohio State isn’t a top-25 squad. He’s not gone for the season, so the Buckeyes will soon be a viable threat again — but for now, Ohio State isn’t that good. Want proof? Just look at its 22-point loss to Wisconsin three days before it played Michigan.

And though it might cheer Wolverine fans to see the Buckeyes’ 0-2 start in conference play, Michigan’s 1-1 mark raises plenty of concerns of its own.

The Wolverines played down to Indiana’s level on Dec. 31, and then let the Hoosiers run away with the game down the stretch. The same thing happened with Utah, and even Boston College. I promise you, Michigan’s roster boasts more talent than those three teams. But the Wolverines weren’t playing their best — they played slightly below their opponents’ best. Michigan fans can call these games whatever they want, but here’s how the NCAA Tournament committee will see them: bad loss, bad loss and (drumroll, please …) bad loss.

Michigan showed flashes of brilliance against the nation’s best team, Kansas, and the Wolverines played their best game of the season against the 15th-ranked Buckeyes. Again, these games weren’t flukes. Michigan simply played up to its competition’s level.

This rollercoaster play — on obvious display in the Wolverines’ first two Big Ten games — should be a concern heading into the rest of the conference season.

The Big Ten isn’t nearly as good as we all thought heading into the season. But it’s not a cakewalk. For Michigan, games on the road against Purdue and Michigan State are looming. Northwestern is playing better than everyone expected. And Turner will be back soon for Ohio State.

I’m not trying to belittle Michigan’s win on Sunday, I’m really not. But people must be wary of placing higher expectations on a team that floundered under that kind of burden earlier this season.

Sunday’s win may prove to be the first step up the mountain, a trip that next goes through a Happy Valley, and could still potentially end with a summit stop at March Madness.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet.

— Auerbach can be reached at naauer@umich.edu.

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