All about the Big Ten: Blue renewal

Moments after Saturday’s 69-51 victory over Oakland, Michigan coach John Beilein was asked if he thought his team would soon enter the Associated Press Top 25.

“I hope not,” Beilein said with a chuckle. “Just let them play.”

Ranked or not, the Wolverines won’t be able to sneak up on teams much longer if they continue to earn wins against opponents such as the Golden Grizzlies. Prior to being blown out by Michigan, Oakland had defeated previously unbeaten Tennessee and came within a point of upsetting Michigan State at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

John Beilein may be doing his finest coaching job this season at Michigan, which is 9-2.
(Rick Osentoski / US Presswire)

Michigan is now 9-2 and owns wins against Clemson and Utah. Not bad for a team that lost its top two players in Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. The Wolverines don’t have a senior on their roster.

Yet somehow, a Michigan team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year seems like a legitimate threat to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.

“One game at a time,” Beilein said. “I’m not going there yet.”

Beilein has always been known as one of the game’s top tacticians, and this has been some of his best work yet. Oakland shot just 30 percent against Michigan, and future NBA draft pick Keith Benson was held to 11 points. No team has scored in the 70s against the Wolverines all season.

“I loved our intensity,” Beilein said after the game. “I can’t recall a time we played that hard and that tough.”

No one would’ve thought it possible at the beginning of the season, but Michigan may actually be better without Sims and Harris, who is now a member of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. In the past, the Wolverines were so dependent on Harris for points that many of his teammates were content to stand back and let him create his own offense.

Now that Harris is gone, other members of the team have become more assertive. That includes sophomore Darius Morris, a guard who averages 14.9 points and ranks fifth nationally with 7.1 assists per game.

Morris has already recorded four double-doubles. His 18 points against Oakland were a team high.

“There’s a day at the end of the season in March where you are going to be judged by your wins and losses,” Beilein told reporters. “This is a quality win. Not because we beat Oakland on our home court, but because Oakland has proven that they can play with anybody and win.”

So, too, has Michigan – at least up to this point.

Even in losses against Syracuse and Texas-El Paso, the Wolverines were competitive. Whether that will hold up in Big Ten play remains to be seen. Michigan may be good enough to finish near the top of a weak conference such as the Pac-10 or the ACC. But in this year’s Big Ten, they could be a darn good team and finish ninth or 10th.

Just don’t tell that to the Wolverines, whose chemistry is getting stronger by the day.

“Our kids are real hungry and want to win,” Beilein said. “And they want to win the right way.”

LEAGUE RANKINGS

(Last week’s rank in parenthesis)

1. Ohio State (10-0) – Freshman Jared Sullinger has been one of the country’s top five players. (1)

2. Michigan State (8-3) – Durrell Summers averages a team-high 15.5 points. (3)

3. Minnesota (10-1) – Trevor Mbakwe has seven double-doubles. (6)

4. Purdue (10-1) – The Boilermakers are too good to be playing a schedule this soft. (4)

5. Illinois (10-2) – Bruce Weber’s squad will have a huge size advantage against Missouri on Wednesday. (2)

6. Wisconsin (9-2) – The Badgers haven’t played in more than a week. (5)

7. Northwestern (8-0) – All but one of the Wildcats’ wins have been by double figures. (7)

8. Michigan (9-2) – Are the Wolverines better without Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims? (9)

9. Indiana (9-2) – All of the Hoosiers’ victories have been at home. (8)

10. Penn State (7-3) – The Nittany Lions play host to Maine on Tuesday. (10)

11. Iowa (6-5) – The Hawkeyes are 2-1 against in-state foes. They beat Drake and Northern Iowa and lost to Iowa State. (11)

WHO’S HOT?

Northwestern's John Shurna is averaging 26.6 points in his past three games.
(Anthony Gruppuso / US Presswire)

John Shurna, Northwestern – Not many players in the country are as hot as Shurna, who is averaging 26.6 points over his last three games while shooting 71.7 percent (28-of-39) from the field. Shurna has also made 12 of his last 17 attempts from beyond the arc and is shooting 59 percent from 3-point range.

Al Nolen’s foot – The Minnesota point guard said he’ll be back in the lineup for the Gophers’ Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Dec. 28. Nolen has missed Minnesota’s last four games with a stress fracture in his foot that he believes was the result of playing three games in four days last month. A senior, Nolen averaged 9.2 points and 4.2 assists over Minnesota’s first six games.

JaJuan Johnson, Purdue – A senior, Johnson is averaging a career-high 19.5 points thanks, in large part, to his performance in the Boilermakers’ last two games. Johnson scored 25 points in a victory over North Florida last week before erupting for 31 against Indiana State. The 6-foot-10 Johnson is also averaging 2.4 blocks.

WHO’S NOT?

Illinois – Just as it was beginning to establish some legitimate momentum for the first time in years, the Illini on Saturday lost to Illinois-Chicago. And it’s not as if the Flames are all that good at 5-7. The setback halted a seven-game winning streak that included victories over Maryland, North Carolina and Gonzaga.

Oakland in the Summit League – Why not extend the Golden Grizzlies an invitation to join the Big Ten? Heck, they’re already playing a Big Ten schedule. Thursday’s game against Ohio State will mark the fifth Big Ten opponent Oakland has played this season. The Golden Grizzlies – who upset Tennessee last week – have lost to Purdue (82-67), Illinois (74-63), Michigan State (77-76) and Michigan (69-51).

The suspension of Tom Izzo – I’m all for disciplining NCAA rule-breakers, but the punishment needs to fit the crime. Izzo was suspended from Saturday’s victory over Prairie View A&M for a secondary violation of rules related to a summer basketball camp. According to Michigan State, the school employed someone associated with a potential recruit during a basketball camp in June. Michigan State, though, said the person employed at the camp wasn’t accompanied by the recruit and didn’t associate with the recruit while working at the camp. “There are certain things about it that bother me so much that I’m not even going to give a platform to it,” Izzo told reporters. “We’re making our profession look like it’s the Keystone Cops and it’s Bonnie and Clyde.”

THREE TO WATCH

Texas at Michigan State, Wednesday – The Longhorns, who won last year’s battle in Texas, are riding high after Saturday’s victory over North Carolina.

Illinois vs. Missouri, Wednesday – The Illini will attempt to bounce back from Saturday’s stunning loss to Illinois-Chicago. Missouri will be without guard Phil Pressey (broken finger).

Northern Iowa at Indiana, Wednesday – A victory over Northern Iowa would be the most high-profile win for the Hoosiers thus far.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Dec 21, 2010