Although Big Ten Conference play is only a little more than one week old, the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines are going to head into their Jan. 13 tilt with the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus as the clear frontrunner to win the league for a second consecutive season.
The Wolverines are off to a 15-0 start, and unless the Nebraska Cornhuskers find five NBA-caliber prospects between now and Wednesday night, Michigan should easily roll to its sixteenth victory of the 2012-13 campaign and match the best start in program history.
College basketball fans across the country, including myself, were hesitant to believe the Wolverines truly deserved to be ranked No. 5 in the nation in the preseason polls, but the Maize and Blue have put those doubters to rest with outstanding guard play and a significantly improved presence on the boards.
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke is playing at a level no one in the Big Ten has been able to match since Magic Johnson played for the Michigan State Spartans, which is the main reason why the Wolverines are the conference's top team.
Additionally, veteran shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is having the best season of his career at Michigan. The junior is knocking down 49 percent of his field-goal attempts, averaging just over 16 points per game and has made seven of 10 three-point shots in the Wolverines' first two Big Ten games.
True freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas have both exceeded lofty expectations as well. Stauskas is the nation's No. 2 three-point shooter (53.7 percent), while Robinson is scoring 12.5 points per game and pulling down a team-high 6.1 rebounds per contest.
A terror in the post is all the Wolverines are missing to be a perfect team, but junior power forward Jordan Morgan has played well in spurts and true freshman Mitch McGary is developing at a frightening rate for opponents.
Not only is Michigan arguably the deepest team in the Big Ten, it is the only team that has not struggled in games it has been expected to win handily.
The No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers looked vulnerable on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes on New Year's Eve. Ohio State was dismantled by a No. 12 Illinois Fighting Illini team coming off of a loss to the 7-7 Purdue Boilermakers.
In fact, the only team in the Big Ten that has handled its business anywhere near the degree Michigan has thus far is the No. 8 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are 14-1, ranked inside the Top 10 and boast a victory over No. 22 Michigan State.
Minnesota's only loss came at the hands of the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November.
Meanwhile, Michigan has dominated almost every one of its opponents this season, including the No. 20 N.C. State Wolfpack and No. 18 Kansas State Wildcats.
Only five of Michigan's games have been decided by fewer than 15 points, and all of those contests were in late November or the first week of December.
The Wolverines are getting better with every game they play, as evidenced by routs of the short-handed Northwestern Wildcats and the upstart Hawkeyes.
This Sunday's tilt with the Buckeyes at Value City Arena will be the Wolverines toughest test to date. Michigan has only played two road games this year, which were against the Bradley Braves and Northwestern. Not exactly threatening opponents.
Playing on the road in the Big Ten is a completely different animal. Even the Wolverines can attest to how difficult it is to play at a similar level both at the Crisler Center and in unfriendly territory.
Last season, Michigan toppled four ranked opponents at home, but lost to the unranked Hawkeyes on the road.
The Wolverines also suffered letdowns outside of their friendly confines against the unranked Arkansas Razorbacks and Virginia Cavaliers during the 2011-12 campaign.
After Wednesday, the Wolverines will play Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana on the road during a six-game stretch. Following that, Michigan will return home to face the Buckeyes again before hitting the road to face the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State.
For now, the Wolverines are the team to beat in the Big Ten. How the Wolverines fare during the gauntlet they are about to run through will determine whether or not that remains the same come mid-February.
Follow me on Twitter @ZachDirlam_SSN.
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