Sports are about rank and order. We saw it with the Major League Baseball awards that came out this week, we see it with all the teams bunched atop the college football polls, and we certainly do it with our college basketball programs.
When Mike Krzyzewski said after the Champions Classic that it’s good for college basketball to have marquee programs play in early season tournaments, he was right. I recently saw firsthand one of the teams that is trying to join that elite class of programs: the Michigan Wolverines.
The question coming out of Ann Arbor is whether UM is ready to be a top-25 program again -- not ranked in the top 25, but a perennial Big Ten contending/NCAA tournament team.
My answer: Yes.
Now let's be clear -- I’m not ready to put them in a class with Kentucky or Duke just yet. After all, it's been almost 20 years since the Wolverines have made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But John Beilein has things trending upward for the Maize and Blue. This is a program steeped in tradition that is eager to get back to those days where raising banners in the Crisler Center was the norm. I think they can get there.
Here are some of the reasons why, and possible next steps the Wolverines need to take:
1) The first indicator that things are changing is that there are higher expectations on this group. That’s what happens when you go to the tournament back-to-back years, are ranked in the top five in most of the polls, bring in a top-20 recruiting class, and come in as defending co-Big Ten champs.
2) That next step in my opinion, albeit small relative to their bigger goals, is to treat next week at Madison Square Garden like the NCAA tournament. Winning the 2012 NIT Season Tip-off under the bright lights in New York would mirror a trip to the Sweet 16. Pittsburgh and Kansas State are tournament locks, and Delaware could be this season’s mid-major version of George Mason out of the CAA. A title at MSG and the confidence begins to soar.
3) More evidence that this UM stock is rising is the talent on the floor. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are proven guys who are all-conference caliber players. Then they add Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, who more than fill the basketball void left by Stu Douglass and Zack Novak. The leadership void is still to be determined, but a sign of a top-tier program is the ability to reload year to year, and that’s what we’re seeing.
4) This team is bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic, which all translates into being better defensively and on the boards -- which then translates into the Wolverines being able to run more and be explosive in transition.
5) Size matters, and Beilein has more of it than at any time in his career. With Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary, Jon Horford, he’s got three bigs that can run and defend, and between them they have 15 fouls to give. All three need to improve their finishing around the rim and rolling ball screens, because they’re going to get opportunities with the up-tempo game.
From having broadcast two games there this week, I can tell you the expectations and excitement level in Ann Arbor are sky-high right now. And why not? Michigan has renovated its facilities, upgraded its roster and has a great staff.
Will all of that add up to the Wolverines becoming a perennial top-25 program?
Sure looks like it from my vantage point.