Michigan kicked off the ACC/Big Ten challenge with a win for the good guys, and beat the highest ranked opponent of the non-conference season.
The hype surrounding this team coming into the season was a bit uncomfortable at times. Not that it wasn't somewhat warranted. Michigan returned a number of great players and solid contributors from Trey Burke, possibly the best point guard in the country, to Tim Hardaway Jr., a dynamic scorer capable of taking over any game when he is "on"...all the way to guys like Jordan Morgan (hustle personified) and Matt Vogrich (gritty, gritty grit). Add in one of the better recruiting classes in the nation, one filled with just the right kinds of pieces that filled Michigan's still open weaknesses (a big bodied five, length on the wings, outside shooting, five minutes of rest per game for Trey Burke) and you really could say the sky was the limit for this squad.
But the sky is so far above us, and we've been grounded for so long that its natural to get scared when you look down on your ascent. This team could be really good. It could also be a disappointment. We've been there before.
Still, a couple solid wins in the Preseason NIT against Pitt and Kansas State -- neither of which is a great team, but no slouches either -- helped everyone breathe easy. Still, it was this game, against NC State that was to be the real deciding factor. Michigan got its chance against a highly ranked, athletic squad from a power conference, all in prime time on ESPN. Put up or shut up.
Michigan put up.
After the first five minutes the game was 10-9 in favor of the Wolfpack. By the next TV timeout Michigan had doubled its scoring while allowing just one more NC State basket. The game would draw closer at times (to five points) and stretch farther (as much as 15 points), but Michigan would hold the lead the rest of the way, absorbing every blow that the Wolfpack could muster.
Leading the charge were two familiar faces and one new. Trey Burke didn't score in the first half, but he distributed the ball well all game en route to 11 assists vs. zero turnovers. His second half would include 18 points, 3 of 5 from 3pt and 5/8 from the line. Tim Hardaway Jr. had his first poor day from outside (1 of 9 from 3pt) but he still was able to finish 7 of 18 overall for 16 points.
The shocker was young Nik Stauskas, who was a smooth 6 of 10 from the floor, 4 of 7 from 3pt, while knocking down all four free throw attempts. The freshman led the way with 20 points on the day. The more touted freshman, Glenn Robinson III added 11 points and 7 rebounds to lead the team in the category.
And so Michigan now has that win. The one that, months from now the Wolverines can look back on as being the first of the legitimizing victories for this team. Michigan's squad is still young, and there will be growing pains along the way. Sometime in the future a loss will happen, and it will come because Hardaway can't find his shot or Burke will force things from deep, or the freshmen will have an off night.
Unlike years past, that kind of game -- the one where things don't click -- is looking much more like the exception rather than the rule. This team is confident, cohesive, and built on a steady foundation of production from a number of different talented players. Once again, the sky is the limit.
Don't worry, sooner or later you'll get used to the heights.