Wolverines now clear team to beat in Big Ten

Wolverines now clear team to beat in Big Ten
January 26, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

No. 3 Wisconsin? Check. No. 10 Iowa? Check. No. 3 Michigan State? Check.

Michigan's beat them all. In a week.

In case anyone needed any more proof that the Wolverines have forcefully shaken off their early season woes, Saturday night's 80-75 win over the in-state rival Spartans in East Lansing should be quite enough. Hot shooting and strong performances all around got Michigan its second road win over a No. 3 team in eight days, its third straight win over a top-10 team and the title of the team to beat in the Big Ten.

The showdown at the Breslin Center pitted the last two teams with unblemished conference marks against one another. They both just happened to be from the Great Lakes State. It was Michigan State's second loss all year, proving that despite a four-loss non-conference record, Michigan certainly has been playing with the caliber of a top-10 team.

[MORE: Gary Harris shines despite Spartans' loss to Wolverines]

"We talk so much about how this is a great win for us because of who we were just able to beat," head coach John Beilein said after the game. "It’s one of the classiest, best programs in the country. They do things the right way. They’ve got great players, they have a great coaching staff, they have a great plan and for our guys to come in here and get the ‘W’ means a lot."

There were plenty of questions surrounding the Wolverines' perfect Big Ten mark before this recent gauntlet of games. Competition had not been of the finest quality, and after all, this was a team which was ranked in the preseason top 10 only to plummet as a brutal non-conference schedule took its toll. But, though it counts a loss to No. 1 Arizona among its defeats, these last three games might have been the toughest yet for Michigan, particularly with two coming at the Kohl Center and the Breslin Center — a pair of the country's toughest venues.

"The rankings right now are the rankings. You don’t know who’s going to be there in March, it’s just projections. I know we beat three really good teams," Beilein said. "It’s three teams that I think will be in the top four or five in the Big Ten. To beat those, that’s what really means a lot because now you have a game up on them in some regard for the Big Ten championship, which to every coach in this league is what we’re trying to do. The national stuff, forget about it. It’s about the Big Ten right now."

[RELATED: Northwestern can't come full circle in loss to Hawkeyes]

Saturday, the Spartans were without injured big men Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, which makes you wonder this matchup will look very different when the two teams meet up again Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor. But the Wolverines have done their fair share of weathering adversity, too, rebounding with this run of success after losing preseason All-America forward Mitch McGary to back surgery. Nik Stauskas and others have stepped up to fill that void. Three players scored in double figures for the Wolverines on Saturday: Stauskas had 19, Derrick Walton had 19 and Caris LeVert had 17. With McGary gone and fellow team leader Glenn Robinson III ineffective, the showing by the Wolverines was impressive.

Nine wins in a row is truly remarkable considering the gauntlet that is the Big Ten. Michigan will have to face another grueling stretch next month, playing four straight games against Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, with the first two coming on the road.

But for now, all is good. Though it likely wasn't written about basketball, Michigan's state motto translates as follows:

"If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you."

With the Wolverines riding high, the state of Michigan is a pleasant peninsula indeed.