January 28, 2013

Borton's Blog: No. 1, revisited

"We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" Which, on Jan. 28, will get you a Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino at Starbucks … provided you toss in a few bucks.

After 20 years, Michigan again stands at the top of the college basketball world, at least in the Associated Press poll. With 51 first-place votes and 1,611 points, the 19-1 Wolverines reign supreme over the second-place Kansas Jayhawks (13 and 1,572).

Of course, it's just the opposite in the USA Today Coaches Poll. There, it's Kansas No. 1 and Michigan No. 2, due in large part to Phil Fulmer's advisory position with Tennessee voters, whom he urged to place the Wolverines at No. 20.

A number of teams have ascended to index-finger mode so far this season … Duke, Indiana, Louisville, and so on. All have come back to the pack, and usually pretty quickly.

Michigan doesn't figure to bow to Wild Bill Carmody and his brainy band of Wildcats on Wednesday night. But the Wolverines certainly could fall to the Hoosiers and their 18,000 auxiliary referees come Saturday night.

Get those fingers up, while you can.

John Beilein appears to care as much about reaching a poll mountaintop in January as he does becoming a contestant on Dancing With The Stars. He issued a quote following the AP vote that oozed shrug.

"Our goal at Michigan is to be No. 1 in the Big Ten," Beilein said. "When you achieve that honor, you will have a chance at the national championship. All through the year polls will spark great interest among college basketball fans everywhere and that is always good. Our coaches and players, however, will remain focused on our goals of improving daily and competing for the championship within our conference."

In other words, have fun with your votes, stay excited, and all that. But we've got serious business at hand.

That sort of sentiment arose in this space last week, but a number of the Michigan faithful opted for a "Not so fast, my friend," approach to No. 1 indifference.

This is their moment too, they reminded. This is their program they've watched go through twists, turns and torment since those heady days in the early 1990s.

Those old enough to remember agonized through Steve Fisher teams that tried to recapture the Fab Five magic, only to fall short. They recall all too well when the greed and selfishness of a relative handful caused it all to begin unraveling.

They winced through the Brian Ellerbe years, and a 44-point loss at Duke. They shuddered over the abomination of a 114-63 loss at Michigan State, including an alley-oop slam dunk in the final minute from the team coached by the self-appointed Duke of Late-Game Decorum.

Michigan fans saw banners come down from the rafters, and a "day of great shame" replace them. They lived through reformation under Tommy Amaker, with flashes of hopefulness never rewarded by a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

They watched walk-ons, rather than Trey Burke, run the point. They cried far more than they laughed, and when they laughed, it was often to keep from crying.

They saw Beilein win 10 games his first year in Ann Arbor, and some said, "Oh, here we go again." Even after a decade-long drought at the NCAA Tournament ended, a brief slide back elicited a sigh and a shrug.

And then this. No. 1. A talent-laden team, rising to the top of a national poll, on the heels of an overachieving Beilein squad delivering Michigan's first conference championship since 1986.

Recruiting floodgates open. A gleaming new basketball complex, replacing a cringe-worthy case against hardcourt talent coming to Ann Arbor.

And now, No. 1.

No, it doesn't put a single extra point on the scoreboard. It assures nothing in March. It doesn't even double the take for the winner of the Arby's Hat Shuffle.

But it put a smile on a lot of faces, this day. And maybe that's enough … for now.


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