January 29, 2013 at 10:15 pm

John Niyo

With No. 1 ranking, Michigan shows how far it's come

Led by arguably the nation’s best point guard in Trey Burke, Michigan should make some waves in the Big Ten as well as the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines are No. 1 for the first time since the 1992-93 season. (John Dixon Associated Press)

John Beilein doesn't want to talk about it. Tom Izzo really doesn't care to, either.

But in case there were any lingering doubts about Michigan's return to basketball relevance, coming off a shared Big Ten championship last year and back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths, now there's this: a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.

It's the first for Michigan in 20 years, going all the way to December 1992, the opening weeks of the star-crossed Fab Five's sophomore season in Ann Arbor. It's just the fourth time in the AP poll's 64-year history that the Wolverines — 19-1 this season and off to the best start in school history — have held the top spot.

And while it's certainly not the first time Izzo has been asked about the emergence of Michigan State's long-dormant in-state rival — Groundhog Day isn't until Saturday, right? — his comments Monday may represent another milestone.

"I'll probably gain some enemies, and probably gain some friends," Izzo joked when asked about the Wolverines impressive run. "Michigan deserves to be No. 1. … If I had a vote, I'd have to vote them No. 1, even though it's your rival. And who wants to do that?"

Not Izzo.

I'm sure, though he's quick to add he respects Beilein's team "for what they've accomplished and what they've done." And I bet he'd be fine if the Wolverines held on to that No. 1 ranking for a couple more weeks, with a Feb. 12 showdown looming against the No. 13 Spartans (17-4, 6-2) at Breslin Center.

But don't expect to hear much from Beilein about any of this, with his team tied with No. 3 Indiana for the Big Ten lead as we near the midpoint of the conference season.

"It's Jan. 27," Beilein said after a 74-60 victory at Illinois last weekend, "and not one of you can remember who was No. 1 last Jan. 27."

They've come so far

Well, actually many of us can. It was a 20-1 Kentucky team that went on to win the Southeastern Conference and the SEC tournament and eventually the NCAA title.

But point taken.

The point, though, isn't so much what a No. 1 ranking means for this year's Michigan squad. It's what it means for the program, which has come a long way — at long last — the past few years under Beilein.

I mean, do you remember where Michigan's basketball team was ranked on Jan. 27 two years ago? Well, I'll save you the trouble: They were ninth … in the Big Ten standings. Tied with Indiana, ironically, a half-game ahead of Iowa in the conference cellar.

Michigan actually upset a backsliding Michigan State in East Lansing that date two years ago. And since then, Beilein's teams are 27-9 in the Big Ten.

So while Beilein's athletic director, Dave Brandon, is among those tempering the celebration — "The only ranking I care about it is at the end of the season," he said — he's well aware of the significance for a program that, thanks to its own myriad failings, has endured some dark times over the last two decades.

"The No. 1 ranking, I know it means a lot to our fans," Brandon said. "It really kind of represents a level of accomplishment we haven't seen in the program in a long time. From the number of emails, calls, tweets, it's very apparent our fans are happy Michigan is in the national conversation in men's basketball. Because it's been a while coming."

Built to last

And while the program finally seems to be on solid ground again, the No. 1 ranking could be here today and gone tomorrow — or Saturday. Michigan will debut its new maize-and-blue bull's-eye Wednesday at home against Northwestern, then heads to Indiana for a nationally televised game this weekend at Assembly Hall.

Still, as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says, "If somebody's handing out No. 1, you might as well take it. And it can be a really good thing."

It helps with the national media exposure, and it undoubtedly helps on the recruiting trail. It might even help a young team develop the kind of swagger it'll need in February and March and — just maybe — into April. (A No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis wouldn't hurt, either.)

That's because the Wolverines do have a roster built for an extended postseason run. They're led by arguably the nation's best point guard (Trey Burke) and one of its better X's and O's coaches, which helps explain why Michigan leads the nation in offensive efficiency, probably the best indicator for postseason success.

"They know what they're looking for, and it's hard to take them out of what they're trying to get," said Illinois coach John Groce, whose Ohio team upset a much more offensively-limited Michigan squad in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament. "It's one thing to have talent, and certainly they have a lot of talent and a lot of depth and a lot of weapons. … But it's another thing to get them synced up."

Right now, Michigan has both. And for the first time in a long time, everyone has taken notice, for what that's worth.



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