His Michigan team has reached chart-topping status, a place where those not well versed in the merits of achievement tend to drift and retreat into seclusion. But John Beilein tells his players look into the spotlight and decide if you want to remain college basketball’s No. 1 ranked team.
“They live in Times Square, everything is just on everyone,” Beilein said. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t read the newspapers.’ We all want to read the newspapers but it’s not as much about the newspapers. It’s Twitter, it’s everything, We have to put in perspective and say to them, ‘How did we get here? Did we get here because we’re obsessed with being No. 1 or did we get here because we worked hard to get it?’ ”
It’s fitting that the Wolverines’ rise to the top coincides with the rebirth at Canisius College, Beilein’s former school, which hasn’t enjoyed much success since he guided the Golden Griffins to a pair of NIT berths and an NCAA appearance in the mid ‘90s. And, as hard as it is to believe, Michigan’s success has been limited since it was ranked No. 1 20 years ago during the Fab Five era.
But here’s Michigan, whose lone blemish came to the hands of rival Ohio State, holding true to its preseason promises of a Final Four run.
Beliein’s freshmen aren’t as Fab as Chris Webber and Co., but he plays five of them and are led in scoring by sophomore Trey Burke. Twenty years is a long time in between No. 1 rankings so this is a special time for a program led by a coach who knows how to create magic.
“Coach has done a great job at telling us we’re the same team as usual,” junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. said. “We’re not changing. We’re excited about the ranking, it’s great for our fan base and it’s great for the University of Michigan and we’re going to try and do a great job at staying in the moment and doing what we can to get better as a team each and every day.”
Even with his success at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia there were those who believed Beilein was in over his head at Michigan based on his .500 record against Big East competition with the Mountaineers. It didn’t take long for the DeSales High graduate to prove them wrong. It is all coming together for Beilein, when more than a few believed Michigan’s glory days were the same as the beeper. In the past.
“If you look from where you are sitting right now, how the arena is filled, the different ways the program has grown with a lot of support from a lot of people from the regents to the president to our athletic directors, that sort of what happens when you do the right things to prepare your team to put them in this position,” Beilein said.
The 20-1 Wolverines haven’t won a national championship since 1989. There’s also the Final Four, unseen since 1993. Or even the Elite Eight, unachieved since 1994.
Michigan is composed of high-IQ players who run Beilein’s motion offense, which emphasizes backdoor cuts and high-percentage shooting, to near perfection.
“We have guys who have bought into Coach Beilein’s system and we have a group of guys coming into this program each and every year who do whatever it takes to become better as a team and better as an individual,” said Hardaway, who will lead the Wolverines against No. 3 Indiana (19-2, 7-1 Big 10) tonight at 9 p.m. (ESPN). “The less you make mistakes off the court, the more you can have success on the court and we do a great job of that as a team.”
Michigan has missed out on postseason glory for far too long. To get close to what Glen Rice did, close to what the Fab Five did. Wouldn’t that put desire in the belly of anyone wearing the maize and blue? Beilein won’t allow himself to look that far ahead. Being No. 1, after all, has a short shelf life.
“We prepared for Slippery Rock like it was the last game of the season,” Beilein said. “That’s the only mantra we’ve always had here. Those guys will tell you they would know in a minute if I was thinking ahead, and I’m not.”
Bill Self has won eight consecutive Big 12 championships but the Kansas coach has never run the table in conference play. With the league down this season the Jayhawks (19-1, 7-0), already No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, are in line to finish unbeaten.
In this day of parity, an unblemished conference record in college hoops is an uncommon accomplishment. Among the BCS conferences, Kansas, Miami (7-0) from the ACC and Florida (7-0) of the SEC are the only remaining conference unbeatens.
Kentucky did it last season on its way to the national title to become the first BCS school since Tubby Smith’s Wildcats’ team did it in 2003. Kansas also did it in 2002.
Now that Loyola (Md.) is leaving the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the Patriot League next season, Greyhounds coach Jimmy Patsos would like to continue playing Niagara and Canisius on an annual basis. Loyola is in talks with Niagara about starting a series beginning in 2014-15. “People think I’m crazy, but I like coming to Buffalo,” Patsos said.
Have to feel for poor Grambling, whose season could rank as the most futile in college basketball history.
Not only are the Tigers the lone Division I school without a victory (0-18, 0-9 SWAC), they are losing by an average of over 31 points and have lost by at least 40 four times.