Among John Beilein’s 11 wins this year, three have come in New York. “It’s a great feeling to go out and represent the university.” (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Brooklyn, N.Y. — It's become a taboo topic around the Michigan basketball program.
Coach John Beilein won't talk about it. The U-M players won't mention it.
But the national polls are reflecting it — and college basketball fans and experts around the country believe it as well.
The Wolverines are back — at least for the short term.
After an 81-66 victory over West Virginia on Saturday night at the Barclays Center, U-M is 11-0, matching the 1988-89 team that won the national championship; the school record for the best start to a season is the 16-0 mark by the 1985-86 squad.
Again in front of a national TV audience — and winning for the third time in New York, along with the championship in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden — No. 3 Michigan dunked, defended and deflated.
Trey Burke scored a season-high 27 points and added eight assists and five rebounds. Tim Hardaway Jr. tied his season-best total with 25 points for the Wolverines, who are poised to move up in the rankings after No. 1 Indiana lost to Butler on Saturday afternoon.
"I like the way we respond. It's something when you travel with the Block M and you have that type of support on a Saturday in Brooklyn or New York City," Beilein said. "It's a great feeling to go out and represent the university."
With each win, the stakes are getting higher — the Wolverines are back in the national consciousness.
They're shining as brightly as during their heyday in the Fab Five era and the years following — all marred and virtually erased by the Ed Martin scandal.
U-M basketball disappeared like Keyser Soze in "The Usual Suspects" while serving self-imposed and NCAA sanctions. But under Beilein, the Wolverines are poised to rise to No. 2 when the rankings are released today. It would be the highest ranking since the Fab Five's sophomore season in 1992-93.
Beilein, in his sixth season at Michigan, has led that charge, since his move from West Virginia. Saturday's game against his former team offered a glimpse at just how far Beilein had come. Before his arrival, Michigan was reeling from the specter of the tainted era, but with more talented players running his system, the Wolverines look poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Beilein has bounced around, spending five years each at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor.
In a conference call last week previewing the game, Beilein talked about making the jump from West Virginia to Michigan.
"The big thing way back then was there was an opportunity to go to the University of Michigan that was a great opportunity, but I also cherished what I had at West Virginia," he said.
Part of the appeal as Beilein moved up the coaching ladder was helping turn programs around and develop players. It appears now, he's at his last stop.
"I loved rebuilding programs; hopefully we can do one more. Michigan ended up being that choice," said Beilein, who cites evolving his coaching philosophy as one of the keys to his longevity. "I have changed every year for 35 years — as long as I've been coaching. I have changed every year, and maybe that's why I'm still coaching. If you don't embrace that part of it, you won't be coaching very long."
Beilein has said he doesn't talk about national rankings with his team, instead keeping them focused on skill development.
"I'm comfortable with our mission that the process will take care of itself. I don't give a hoot about how people think we are," he said. "We're playing five freshmen — more than any team in the country. It's very rare for those types of young men to be able to sustain success.
"We're trying every day to get them to understand prosperity and continue to get better."
Burke, who considered leaving for the NBA but returned for his sophomore season, is leading the way toward an unbeaten nonconference schedule and into the gauntlet of the Big Ten schedule, which includes six teams that are currently ranked in the Top 25.
His growth and poise are one of the main reasons the Wolverines are in the national discussion.
"Trey is way more mature now. He really focuses on getting his teammates involved first and if he sees an opening, he's going to take it," Hardaway said. "That's what we love about him — he's an aggressive guard when he needs to be and he's very composed. Whenever he needs to score, he can score.
"If he wants to dish the ball out to us guys, he can do that too.
"He's just an all-around player and a heck of a passer and we love him to depth and we're happy he came back."
Burke is back and Michigan basketball is back. How far they go is still to be determined — but like the Fab Five era, Wolverines fans will have fun finding out.