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January 30, 2013Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, the five freshmen on the Michigan basketball team, were sitting in their Monday afternoon Cultures Of Basketball lecture when the Associated Press wire spit out the latest Top 25 rankings.
This being the age of the Internet and instant information, the news found its way into the classroom. Michigan sat atop the rankings at No. 1.
The professor, fully aware of the Wolverines' presence in his class, happily interrupted class to relay the news.
"We got a round of applause," Robinson said. "That brought a smile to our face. But the hardest thing is staying on top, so that's what we're going to try to do."
The Wolverines are in a somewhat awkward situation: they have to acknowledge the fact that they have done something the program hasn't accomplished in 20 years, yet understand that there is still so much to do.
"You have to put in in perspective and say, 'How did we get here? Did we get here because we were No. 1 or because we worked hard every day?'" Michigan coach John Beilein said. "If that has worked so far, let's keep doing it every day."
So Michigan is doing its best to shut out the noise and move on. After all, "January Madness" doesn't have much of a ring to it - the champion, the true No. 1, is crowned at the end of the year.
Although the Wolverines are young, they're experienced with handling high expectations. Albrecht, Stauskas and McGary all played for high-profile prep teams. LeVert's high school, Pickerington Central, won a state title. And Robinson's high school squad, Lake Central, was highly ranked but did not win a championship.
"I have been on teams that had the rankings and didn't necessarily finish the season like we wanted to," Robinson said. "I have learned from the mistakes of being ranked so high and paying attention to that. That's one thing we kind of let go and be out there in the media, but within this gym, we need to stay focused and get better as a team."
"The guys that came in, they have been winning since they were in high school," junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. added. "They knew what to expect, and they have handled the situation very well. They know what they have to do going forward. We can't buy into that stuff. We have to live in the moment, and I think we're all focused on Northwestern."
The Wolverines have found a balance between the micro - being ranked No. 1 right now - and the macro - finishing the season strong, with 11 Big Ten games remaining before the start of the postseason.
"It's great for our fanbase and everyone back home who pays attention to the games," said Robinson. "It's a great thing to have, but at the same time, you can't get caught too much in that.
"Nowadays with all the media, Twitter and Facebook, everyone is talking about how great it feels to be No. 1. We try to block as much of that out as possible."
Getting Ready For Northwestern: In early January, the Wolverines toppled Northwestern, 94-66 in Evanston. Before the game, they talked about the difficulty of preparing for the complicated offensive scheme the Wildcats employ, especially with five freshmen on the roster who had never seen it.
With a game against Northwestern already in the books, Michigan's game prep for Wednesday night's rematch has gone more smoothly.
"It was pretty tough to get the hang of it on defense," Robinson said of the previous matchup. "Going through that process once has definitely helped. That's the good thing about playing them twice. Now, we just have to pick up on the mistakes we made last game and execute off those."
"Coach Beilein did a great job of breaking things down yesterday," Hardaway added. "Our freshmen are keying in on things that we missed last game, and should be better off this time around. We're going to limit our mistakes. We're going to make them, but you have to move on."
The Wildcats are a much stronger team now, though.
In the previous game, Northwestern was still adapting to life without star guard Drew Crawford, who had been lost a few weeks earlier to a season-ending injury. To make matters worse, senior guard Reggie Hearn was held out of the game with an ankle problem.
Since losing to the Wolverines, the Wildcats have gone 3-4 with impressive wins at Illinois, 68-54, and vs. Minnesota, 55-48.
"Northwestern brings some really unique challenges again for us," Beilein said. "We have to come right back with what is traditionally the most difficult prep we ever have. We're doing what we have to do to get ready to play the Wildcats.
"They have improved drastically since the last time we played them. Reggie Hearn had just been hurt. He is going to the foul line eight times a game.
"We're practicing like it's the only game left in our season, and there is a lot to this. I'm looking forward to today's practice. Yesterday was very light, because of the late arrival back from the Sunday night game. Now, we can see what we can do tomorrow."