November 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm

John Niyo

Child's play: Michigan's young guns toy with North Carolina State

Michigan freshman Mitch McGary snags a rebound in front of North Carolina State's Richard Howell on Tuesday at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. (Steve Perez/Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Ask any parent, and they'll tell you it's amazing how much life changes when you add a few kids to the mix.

Ask any coach, and they'll tell you the same.

Ask John Beilein, though, and all you get is a big grin as Michigan's basketball coach tells you how much he's enjoying a house full of teenagers again.

Tuesday night was no different, even after a tense final few minutes as Beilein's team held on for a 79-72 win over 18th-ranked North Carolina State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge at Crisler Arena.

This wasn't the best performance of a young season from his precocious, young team. But it was another impressive one from the Wolverines, now 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country — the program's highest perch since late in the 1993-94 season.

And that it came on the night they raised a Big Ten championship banner to the rafters, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, well, that meant something, too.

But leave it to the ones with the short attention spans to put things into proper perspective.

"Those guys put a lot of hard work into that banner," said freshman guard Nik Stauskas, who, lest you forget he's a kid, actually admitted to being a Justin Bieber fan after the game. "But it's on to the next one. We want another one."

And thus far, it appears they're certainly capable of doing just that. Michigan, fresh off a pair of Preseason NIT wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas State in New York, came home to face a North Carolina State team that began the season ranked No. 6 in the country and was a popular pick to win the ACC.

That was based in part on last year's Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament, but also a lineup that includes a couple of likely NBA draft picks in Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie and trio of McDonald's All-Americans playing as freshmen.

Gathering steam

But for the first time in a long time, the Wolverines have the talent — and the depth — to match up with the nation's best, especially offensively. They're ranked in the top five in points-per-possession and showing no signs of slowing despite facing better competition the last week. If anything, they're just getting warmed up, because as Beilein noted, "We've still got those lab coats on, guys, trying to figure (things) out."

"Michigan is gonna be a hard team to beat because of the way they shoot the basketball," agreed Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried, whose team shot 57 percent from the floor and still trailed by double digits for much of the night. "I think they're legitimate, no doubt in my mind. … I think they're a legitimate top-five team in the country."

And I think he's right, because Beilein finally has some legitimate help for Trey Burke, his All-America candidate at point guard.

There's a more confident — and well-rounded — junior leader Tim Hardaway and an improved junior forward in Jordan Morgan. But mostly, there are the freshmen — Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Stauskas — who merely combined for 39 points and 14 rebounds in Tuesday night's win. They've added athleticism, size and some dead-eye outside shooting.

"It's very dangerous," said Burke, who finished with 18 points and a career-high 11 assists. "We have options. And when they get going, the team gets going."

Helping hand

Tuesday night, it was Stauskas who got going first, coming off the bench and draining a few 3-pointers in the first half to spark the Wolverines. And it's hard not to notice the confidence Beilein has in this group, isn't it?

With his team leading 25-16 midway through the first half, Michigan's coach actually tossed out a lineup of Burke, seldom-used senior Eso Akunne and the three rookies. Barely a minute later, the lead had grown to 30-16 and, heading to the bench for a timeout, Stauskas and McGary were exhorting the crowd of 12,693 on its feet to get louder.

At halftime, Burke's stat line was nearly as remarkable: No points, no turnovers, nine assists.

I asked Beilein after the game if his team could've won a game last year with Burke, Michigan's leading scorer, going an entire half without a made field goal. (When it happened in that dreary Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Ohio State, for instance, the Wolverines got their doors blown off.)

He paused, and then smiled, "That would've been difficult."

This year, though, "It's kind of a different feel," Burke said, nodding.

"It's been an adjustment," he added. "But it hasn't been a hard adjustment."

There are growing pains to come, I'm sure.

But right now, that's as easy for him to say as it is for everyone else to see.

See Also
More John Niyo