Niyo: Worthy of No. 1? Michigan about to find out if it's legit

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Ignas Brazdeikis

Ann Arbor – The way Ignas Brazdeikis sees it, everybody else is just catching up.

Asked Friday to pinpoint when exactly he felt Michigan had made its case for being the No. 1 team in the country, Brazdeikis, the Wolverines’ brash-talking freshman forward, smiled and answered without hesitation.

“As soon as I stepped in the gym,” he replied.

He didn’t mean that selfishly, of course.

“Our team’s No. 1, always -- that’s just the kind of competitor I am,” he added. “But I felt like we were No. 1 right away, and now it’s coming to realization.”

It’s coming up in conversation now, to be sure. And as the second-ranked Wolverines hit the road for arguably their toughest test to date – a noon tipoff Saturday at Wisconsin, where John Beilein has won just twice in nine trips as Michigan’s head coach – there’s a chance it could happen.

Duke is No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the moment. But the Blue Devils fell to 14-2 overall with an overtime loss at home to Syracuse on Monday night. And now Mike Krzyzewski’s team, which played without two of its vaunted freshmen -- Cameron Reddish sat with the flu and point guard Tre Jones left early with a shoulder injury that’ll sideline him indefinitely – is set to host No. 4 Virginia in an ACC showdown on Saturday. The winner will have a valid argument for No. 1, but the Wolverines might, too.

More: Wisconsin's do-everything Ethan Happ a big burden for Michigan

And, yes, the thought has crossed their minds, that Michigan could be atop the rankings next week, something that has happened just once for the program in the last quarter century. (Beilein’s 2013 Final Four squad held the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for all of a week in late January.)

“Yeah, it excites me a lot,” said Brazdeikis, who remains the leading scorer (15.6 average) for a balanced Michigan starting unit. “That’s crazy, being the No. 1 team in the nation. And obviously it depends on how Virginia does and stuff. It’s just exciting, though. We’ve worked so hard and now it’s starting to show across the nation and everyone’s taking notice.”

It’s hard not to, at this point, with Michigan off to a 17-0 start this season – Virginia (16-0) is the only other unbeaten team in Division I – and on a remarkable roll the last 12 months, winning 31 of its last 32 games dating back to last Feb. 6.

Isaiah Livers

In fact, that’s what strikes sophomore forward Isaiah Livers most about all this talk of looking out for No. 1. It was a year ago this week that Michigan broke into the top 25 for the first time last season, following a surprising rivalry win over then-No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing.

“I remember last year when we actually got into the rankings, we were like, ‘Wow,’” Livers said Friday. “Look where we started and now where we are.”

Just don’t expect the head coach to shift his focus. Beilein is quick to dismiss any discussion of where things stand right now, because he knows none of that will matter a week from now, let alone in March. He’s also aware Michigan’s favorable early schedule is about to end, starting Saturday at the Kohl Center.

“Coach B has been amping it up on his little soundtrack thing he’s got going on when we’re shooting free throws,” noted Livers, who missed last year’s win in Madison due to an ankle injury. “He says it’s a tough place to play, and he keeps repeating it. And if Coach Beilein keeps repeating something, it has to be true.”

The truth is, Michigan has five Quadrant 1 wins thus far, based on the new NET rankings that’ll be a part of the NCAA Tournament selection process. Only Kansas (eight) and Michigan State (six) have more. But Beilein’s team may have as many as 10 or 11 Quadrant 1 games – defined as a top-30 team at home or a top-75 team on the road -- left on their schedule.

And while everyone points to the final two weeks of the regular season, when Michigan faces Michigan State twice in addition to games against Nebraska and at Maryland, these next couple weeks also should be telling. After Saturday's game in Madison, the Wolverines will have home games against Minnesota and Ohio State tucked between Friday night road trips to Indiana and Iowa. In all, eight of their last 14 will be away from home.

“We’re gonna find out now,” Beilein said. “We better be good on the road, right? Or you can’t compete for a championship.”

Fair enough, but a freshman still can dream, right? Brazdeikis couldn’t help himself Friday, when asked whether he ever envisions a matchup with Duke. 

“I would love to play Duke," he said, laughing. "Because they’ve got that No. 1 team and that No. 1 hype. We feel like we’re definitely better than them. So …”

So it's easy to understand why Beilein might feel the need to turn up the volume in practice these days. And the more his team wins, the louder it'll get.

Nothing but NET 

The top 10 teams in the NET rankings, through Thursday's games:

1. Virginia, 16-0

2. Michigan, 17-0

3. Tennessee, 15-1

4. Duke, 14-2

5. Michigan State, 16-2

6. Gonzaga, 17-2

7. Houston, 17-1

8. Texas Tech, 15-2

9. Virginia Tech, 14-2

10. Kentucky, 13-3

Michigan at Wisconsin

Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.

TV/radio: ESPN/950

Records: No. 2 Michigan 17-0, 6-0 Big Ten; Wisconsin 11-6, 3-3

Outlook: Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting (39.1 percent) and third in scoring defense (63.6 points). ... Badgers big man Ethan Happ has scored in double figures in 41 consecutive games. … Michigan has won three straight in the series but is 2-7 at the Kohl Center under coach John Beilein. … The Wolverines have trailed for a total of 3 minutes, 7 seconds in six Big Ten games.