With their 80-75 win over Michigan State on Saturday night, the Michigan Wolverines picked up a third consecutive victory over an AP Top 10 opponent and remained the hottest team in the nation.
The Spartans were without Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne—two of their top four scorers and both of their leading rebounders—but that doesn't make Michigan's road win over the No. 3 team in the country any less impressive.
Is there a ceiling for how high this team can climb in the polls or how far it can go in the NCAA tournament?
It was the second time in as many Saturdays that the Wolverines went on the road to knock off the No. 3 team, as they took care of business against Wisconsin one week ago.
At this rate, it won't be long until they are the third-best team in the country.
How in the world did we get here? Just six weeks ago we were wondering if a loss to Arizona might be the death knell for their tournament dreams. That loss put them at 6-4 on the season with as many good wins (one vs. Florida State) as bad losses (one vs. Charlotte).
Instead, the loss to Arizona served as a wake-up call.
The Wolverines are working on a nine-game winning streak that includes three road wins against RPI Top 25 teams. Arizona is the only other team in the country with three such victories all season—one of which came against Michigan—but Michigan accomplished the feat in a span of 23 days.
Playing this entire stretch without preseason All-American Mitch McGary, one might be inclined to believe that this is all smoke and mirrors; that Michigan is getting lucky and simply catching teams at exactly the right time.
On the contrary, Michigan has the third-most efficient offense in the nation, according to KenPom (subscription required), and as Tom Izzo acknowledged after the game, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), "The better team won."
Nik Stauskas may have been snubbed from the Midseason Top 25 of the Wooden Award, but he has been nothing short of incredible for Michigan since recovering from a sprained ankle earlier in the year. During this nine-game winning streak, Stauskas is shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range while averaging 18.7 points and 4.6 assists per game.
Michigan's most important player has been on the court for 89.4 percent of the 360 minutes in those nine games.
Both Stauskas and Derrick Walton Jr. had 19 points and four assists against the Spartans on Saturday night.
Walton hardly played at all in Wednesday's win over Iowa while battling flu-like symptoms. When healthy, though, he has emerged as a go-to scorer for this team over the past few weeks. Walton scored just one point in the loss to Arizona and was held scoreless in the loss to Charlotte, but he has scored in double figures in four of Michigan's last six games.
Perhaps most critical of all, though, has been the increased and improved play of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. They were supposed to be role players but have responded quite well to being thrust into sharing a full-time job. Not only are they receiving a higher quantity of minutes with McGary out of the picture, but they are delivering higher quality minutes, too.
|Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan Production|
|Statistic||Horford and Morgan with McGary||Horford and Morgan without McGary|
|Minutes per game||20.3||37.4|
|Points per 40 minutes||10.9||14.4|
|Rebounds per 40 minutes||10.1||12.2|
Less than a month ago, Michigan was an afterthought at best in the Big Ten picture. Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin were all ranked in the Top Five of the AP poll. Iowa and Illinois were also ranked in the Top 25, while Michigan was barely receiving any votes.
Now, the Wolverines are sitting atop of what Ken Pomeroy ranks as the best conference in the nation (subscription required).
Last week—before the wins over Iowa and Michigan State—Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore took a look at how John Beilein has turned this season around for Michigan, somehow making this team even better without McGary in uniform. Despite digging into the numbers, he was still understandably skeptical of the potential tournament success, penning near the end of that article, "I'm not ready to declare that the Wolverines are capable of going on another Final Four run."
It's funny how one week of basketball can completely change our expectations, because the sky is now officially the limit for the Wolverines.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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