February 1, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Indiana will be latest huge challenge for No. 1 Michigan

Michigan point guard Trey Burke, right, has 150 assists this season, compared to just 39 turnovers. (Steve Perez/Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- The record is gaudy, the numbers are glossy and big possibilities abound. By poll and performance, Michigan is the No. 1 team in the country right now.

Just don't expect the Wolverines to tout it loudly. In Big Ten basketball, the tests of authenticity never stop.

When Michigan (20-1) visits third-ranked Indiana (19-2) on Saturday night, it will be the showdown of the season, so far. Nothing is settled the first weekend in February, but this will be a prime-time power display. The luminaries of ESPN's "College GameDay" will be there to add to the din, including Dick Vitale, who recently pegged Michigan his national-title favorite.

The Wolverines will be tested in a way they've been tested once, when they lost at Ohio State, 56-53. They stepped into that cauldron and wobbled early, digging a 29-8 hole. If they weren't ready for that, theoretically they should be more ready for this.

Michigan is really good, but winning at Indiana is really tough. If a top-ranked team can be an underdog, that's fine with the Wolverines.

"With Indiana being No. 1 coming into the season, it's kind of like we're playing the No. 1 team in our minds," guard Trey Burke said. "You know a lot of people are doubting us and want to see us lose. It's very important to keep a chip on our shoulders. When you're the top team, you're not only the other team's target, you're everyone's target. Everyone wants to see the fans rush the court after they beat the No. 1 team."

Stay humble or get humbled — a concept the Wolverines have no problem embracing. After all, the star sophomore point guard, Burke, was overlooked by his hometown school. The dynamic scorers with the recognizable names — Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III — have played in the shadows of their lineage. The freshman marksman, Nik Stauskas, developed his swagger on the mean streets of Mississauga, Ontario.

It's the hidden characteristic of this team, and the reason the Wolverines' quest for a championship is authentic. Coach John Beilein is doing a masterful job juggling talent and roles. They're not dominated by one superstar, although Burke very well might be the National Player of the Year. They pass the ball as well as anybody — Burke's assist-to-turnover numbers are incredible (150-to-39) — and are the best-shooting team in the Big Ten.

Big tests await

Under Tom Crean, Indiana also is deep and explosively skilled, led by 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller and terrific junior guard Victor Oladipo. The Hoosiers lead the nation in scoring margin (25.2), while the Wolverines are third. The teams are one-two in every major offensive category in the Big Ten and are tied atop the standings at 7-1.

But the fact is, Michigan is 0-1 against the primary contenders — Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State. The biggest challenges remain, which is why Beilein would rather talk about his team's unselfishness and improving defense. He enjoyed relating a discussion with freshman Mitch McGary, one of the top recruits in the country. McGary is the rare blue chip on a team that carries more subtle chips, and he told Beilein he's perfectly content coming off the bench while Jon Horford starts in place of injured Jordan Morgan.

Michigan can be flashy when Burke is flipping alley-oops, but Beilein is determined to keep his team more blue-collar than blue-chip.

"I think we embrace this moment of being No. 1 more than I probably give out, but we're not focused on it," Beilein said. "Trey and Tim have set the benchmark all year. We're playing hard, and everybody on the team is looking at how these guys play. In film, we like to show things that never show up. You've never seen a dive (on the floor) in the stat sheet, have you? You've never seen the pass that leads to the assist, right? We love that part."

They'll need all those parts to have a chance at Indiana, where Michigan has won once in the past 15 meetings. At stake? To be the early favorite in the conference and possibly land the coveted No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, where a team could start in Auburn Hills and go through Indianapolis.

More fabulous

But that's getting way, way ahead of the plan. The last time Michigan was No. 1 was Nov. 30, 1992, the second season of the Fab Five's run. These Wolverines don't have that hype, but if they keep developing, they could match the talent and exceed the accolades.

Burke grew up in Columbus but wasn't highly recruited by Ohio State, and initially committed to Penn State. Hardaway Jr. was an under-the-radar prospect out of Miami. Robinson, son of Purdue star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, chose Michigan over a smattering of smaller programs, and now is one of the top freshmen in the country.

"Indiana kind of recruited me a little bit, similar to Purdue," Robinson said. "I just can't wait to get there and play. The atmosphere is gonna be crazy."

As always, Burke is the key. In its 68-46 romp against Northwestern, Michigan finished with an astonishing two turnovers. The Wolverines might not get through two minutes Saturday night without two turnovers, but if Burke can handle it, they can handle it.

"We know it's real critical to come out strong and respond to the first punch, and try to keep the crowd as neutral as possible," Burke said. "I feel the offensive end will take care of itself. As long as we get stops on defense, I think our chances are good."

As long as the Wolverines keep passing the ball and chasing the ball, this won't be their last best chance.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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