Ann Arbor -- Now comes the hard part. Now that everyone in college basketball is aware what Michigan is capable of, the target becomes part of the story.
The Wolverines have a look we haven't seen from them in 20 years. And in a few days, they might get the mark to match the look — the No. 1 ranking. It doesn't mean anything tangible in January, not when everything is a prelude to March. But if they want to adjust to wearing the target, now is the time to do it.
Michigan slogged its way to a 68-53 victory over Purdue on Thursday night, cranking up the defense to put it away. And for all their offensive sizzle, that's how the Wolverines (18-1, 5-1 Big Ten) will have to slug through a loaded Big Ten. To prove their lofty status when it really matters, they'll have to show the defensive tenacity they unleashed in the second half of this one.
They were down early against the Boilermakers (10-9, 3-3), then did some harsh self-analysis at halftime. They even confessed to a bout of softness, and that changed in a hurry. Tim Hardaway Jr. took over guarding D.J. Byrd and shut him down, and it's amazing how sharp the Wolverines look when they're grabbing steals and Trey Burke is racing up the court.
"I'm really happy because that's Big Ten basketball at a very high level," John Beilein said. "It's just mental toughness. As we play against better and better teams, which we'll see every day in the Big Ten, you gotta be poised with your decisions. You have to hit singles instead of trying for home runs. We learned that down in Columbus (a 56-53 loss to Ohio State)."
In line for top spot
The second-ranked Wolverines could move into the top spot with a win Sunday at Illinois, a symbolic label that means a bit more when you haven't been there since 1993. No. 1 Duke was pummeled by Miami (Fla.), so is Michigan really the No. 1 team in the country? That'll be settled without the use of polls and barroom beers, but I do think this — they have the best offense in the country, deep, diverse and dynamic. They're gaining attention, and it's common now to declare them a top national-title candidate.
They talk among themselves about the issue of not talking about the No. 1 ranking, and they steadfastly stick to it. This season isn't about polls, which are merely notable markers. It's becoming clear the Wolverines aren't just along for a fun little ride.
They lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and know what some observers say, that they have to be tougher in the interior to beat the big boys.
Someone asked Hardaway Jr. if Beilein suggested at halftime they were playing soft.
"He did not say that," Hardaway Jr. said with a slight edge. "We called ourselves that. The defense has to be turned on from the get-go. Everyone's going to catch onto this, they all watch film. We gotta do it for 40 minutes."
The huge challenges await, and Michigan has the talent to handle them. Burke had another night of understated brilliance, with 15 points, eights assist and one turnover. Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III are capable of popping up on ESPN SportsCenter any given night. Nik Stauskas is a terrific shooter and Mitch McGary is a growing energy force, two of five freshmen contributing.
Tough sledding ahead
Michigan still has to play Indiana twice, Michigan State twice and Ohio State once, so this No. 1 talk might be moot. The Big Ten's big three are daunting, and surely you recall who inflicted the only blemish on No. 3 Kansas' record? Well, it was Michigan State, which is 17-3 and actually a half-game ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten.
That's the story we're waiting to see unfold. Who will emerge among Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, and possibly, Ohio State? The Wolverines have become the hunted simply by the stirring nature of their play, with Burke surrounded by all sorts of scorers. The Spartans, at least for now, are the ones hunting, and a hunting, hungry Tom Izzo team is always dangerous.
Michigan State is the conference's defensive staple and has no plans to surrender the target, evidenced by its 49-47 grinder over Wisconsin. Michigan is a new breed under Beilein's system, with all five of its starters shooting at least 49 percent from the field.
That's hard to stop, with Burke playing like a National Player of the Year. He makes it all go, and at Beilein's urging, Burke and others are trying to jump into passing lanes more regularly to generate steals. U-M also is rebounding well for a team without a lot of size.
"Here's the big thing they're learning — it's a lot of fun playing defense, because then you can rebound and put us in transition," Beilein said. "That's what I think they're all understanding. Defense has become part of our offense, hopefully."
If their defensive sneer matches their offensive flair, look out. The Wolverines need to watch out for the pitfalls of publicity, and other teams need to watch out for an eagerly rising power. Michigan wears a shiny new target, and it's starting to like the fit.