Ann Arbor — There's a new ceiling for Michigan basketball these days, and it figuratively extends from the top of the polished Crisler Center straight to the shiny floor. You could argue the structure, from the arena to the team, looks as good as it ever has — and expectations are higher than they've ever been.
The Wolverines aren't some quick-shooting oddity anymore. They're deep, talented and feisty, and here's the notion that should warm Michigan fans — they're getting tough in the trenches, with the size and gumption to rebound.
Yes, football terms still bleed into basketball at Michigan, but John Beilein is developing something special enough to stand on its own. The Wolverines are 9-0 after their 80-67 victory Saturday over Arkansas, the program's best start since 1988-89, the only time it won the national championship.
This team has national-championship potential too, although Beilein winces when he hears talk about streaks and the No. 3 ranking. The Wolverines have played one ranked team (N.C. State) and still must traverse a brutally loaded Big Ten. But in a nationally televised showcase in front of an energetic crowd, they displayed a growing dimension.
It's amazing what's transpired in Beilein's six years here, a testament to how a program can rise when it raises the ceiling. Michigan basketball didn't used to take a backseat to football — it had no seat at all, especially during the post-Fab Five probation. More than $95 million in renovation and construction, including the impressive William Davidson Player Development Center, was the biggest sign Michigan was serious about basketball. Hiring Beilein, it turns out, was the most-important sign.
Improved recruiting has pushed the talent level to unexpected heights, causing Beilein to mix players and pieces like a scientist with beakers. The main offensive stars — Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. — are dynamic, and freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas have progressed so quickly, they've already cracked the starting lineup.
Flexing their muscles
Against the aggressive Razorbacks, the Wolverines showed something else. When their 13-point lead was whittled to one, they stuck footprints on the Hogs. It's no longer about putting lipstick on a pig here.
"I like that when we responded, it wasn't with some pretty play," Beilein said. "We got gutty, garbage buckets that made the difference. With all the new ball-screen offenses everybody employs, there are more rebounding angles, and you gotta have some muckers that go in and get the loose ones."
OK, from football analogies to hockey analogies. The Wolverines have muckers and grinders in junior Jordan Morgan and freshman Mitch McGary. Along with sophomore Jon Horford, Michigan was overpowering on the boards, and while it isn't a classically talented Arkansas team, it has athletes.
Michigan has more athletes than most now, although it's a very young roster. Beilein is using them all, and if freshmen are ready to play, they play. The terrific shooting of Stauskas and Robinson has been a revelation, but Michigan doesn't have to heave 30 three-pointers anymore.
The Wolverines average 19 three-point attempts per game and are hitting 43 percent. Last season it was 23 attempts at a 35-percent clip. They've lived by the three and gone dry by the three in the past. Now with the 6-8 Morgan, 6-10 McGary and 6-10 Horford, they have mistake-erasers.
Michigan outrebounded Arkansas 42-26, including 18-10 on the offensive glass. Morgan had 12 points and 10 rebounds, and the starters all scored in double figures -- between 12 and 17 points. That balance extends to other areas.
Morgan might be the most underappreciated player on the team, the fulcrum of a solid defense. McGary was one of the top recruits in the country, and while he's raw offensively, he's a punishing space-eater.
"The coaches call me the monster, and it's hard to keep the monster off the glass," McGary said with a smile. "It gives the guards a sense that they can shoot it and we'll go get it. It takes the pressure off them. We're just trying to establish a low-post presence we haven't had in the program the last couple years. It's taking a while, but we're gonna get there."
There's talent, too
Low-post banging isn't a hallmark of Beilein teams. But then, he didn't have the resources at other jobs to collect players like this. ESPN basketball guru Chad Ford recently suggested Michigan might be the most talented team in the country, with five players in his top 100. Indiana is ranked No. 1 and Duke No. 2 for legitimate reasons, and Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota await in the Big Ten. And while the Wolverines won a share of the conference crown last season, they have to show they can get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
But make no mistake, they can play with the big boys again, partly because they have big guys again. Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson marveled at the Wolverines' "guys in the trenches."
Michigan can slash and mash, not just stand and shoot, and Burke is directing the offense expertly. You see him expanding his game, and you understand why he returned for his sophomore season after considering an NBA jump.
"I don't think we're a different team, I just think we're deeper," Burke said. "A lot of it has to do with my understanding of the offense. Taking threes is a strength of ours, but last year we obviously took too many. Now we got guys that can put the ball on the ground and get to the rim."
Much bigger tests await, but when you see the once-dingy arena lively and full at times, and more talent coming in, you see possibilities that didn't seem possible a few years ago. Beilein won his 100th game as Michigan coach Saturday, and when asked about it, he shook his head.
"I certainly hope the next 100 at Michigan are easier than the first 100," he said. "Those first three years were a difficult transition."
From the floor to the ceiling, the Wolverines are rising. If any limits still exist, they're capable of busting right through them.