Almost exactly two years ago, on January 22, 2011, Michigan dropped its sixth straight Big Ten contest, this time a home loss to Minnesota to fall to 11-9 overall and 1-6 in the conference. The season had begun with high expectations, fueled by freshman [edit: sophomore] point guard Darius Morris, but as January neared its end, many Michigan faithful began to wonder whether John Beilein was ever going to get Michigan back to elite status.
Rewind to the beginning of the 1992 season which Michigan entered with the number one national ranking looking to avenge the national championship game loss of the season before. Year two of the Fab Five saw Michigan hold the top spot all of three weeks, and ultimately lost the title game once again. Beilein, meanwhile was just beginning his Division 1 coaching career at Canisius College.
Fast forward ten years to 2002 when Michigan was handed sanctions as a result of four players – Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, and Louis Bullock – being found to have received money from booster Ed Martin. The Fab Five era was erased, as were the late 1990s, which included a Big Ten Tournament championship in 1998 and the 1997 NIT title. By this time, Beilein was taking over a West Virginia program that he would take to the Elite Eight a couple years later.
Jump ahead five years to 2007. Michigan hired Beilein to replace Tommy Amaker who had been the safe hire in 2001 to lead the program through the sanctions. Beilein’s first team finished an underwhelming 10-22 and it was hard to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel.
The very next season, however, the Wolverines upset fourth-ranked UCLA and fourth-ranked Duke, won 22 games, earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since the sanctions were lifted, and won the first round game over Clemson. It was the first feel-good moment for Michigan basketball in a long time, and while the team limped to a losing record in the 2009-10 season, it laid the foundation for future success.
That takes us back to late January of 2011. Carrying a six-game losing streak into East Lansing where the Wolverines hadn’t won since 1997 wasn’t a fun proposition, but a Stu Douglass three with 25 seconds left sealed the Michigan win. The Maize and Blue won eight of their last 11, including a regular-season ending 70-63 win over the Spartans to earn a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament. There, Michigan routed Tennessee and nearly knocked off top-seeded Duke.
Two years to the day after that unlikely victory in East Lansing, Michigan beat Illinois to sieze the No. 1 ranking in today’s Associated Press poll. Monday’s AP poll marks the first time since Dec. 6, 1992 that the Wolverines have been ranked first overall, which means four current Wolverines – Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Max Bielfeldt – weren’t even alive the last time Michigan was ranked number one. In fact, if you add up the age of every player on the team at the time Michigan was last ranked first (16 years, 360 days), it wouldn’t even equal the amount of time that has passed since that time (20 years, 53 days). The oldest player at the time was Corey Person at three years and 145 days old.
Following Sunday’s win over Illinois, Beilein downplayed the significance of the No. 1 ranking, saying that no one will remember who was ranked number one at the end of January. And while that’s true on a national level, one can be rest assured that Michigan fans across the world will.
For many current Michigan fans, the fandom started, or at least grew, during that time period from the 1989 national championship through the Fab Five years. It was truly an exciting time. But the abyss that it sent the program into, which it has been clawing out of inch by inch over the past decade and a half, is one most Michigan fans would like to forget. That’s what makes today’s No. 1 ranking so special.
The 1992 squad, loaded with the talent of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson, changed the culture of college basketball and helped put Michigan basketball on the map. But their stardom and the actions that came with it took Michigan basketball off the map for the subsequent decade-plus. This year’s squad, led by a super sophomore from Columbus that the Buckeyes passed over, a pair of NBA sons, and a lightly recruited sharp-shooter from Canada has achieved No. 1 the right way, ironically, in the same year the Fab Five ban is set to end.
The obvious goal, as Beilein and the rest of the team has harped on all season, is to be number one at the end of the season. But Michigan’a ascension to the top spot has put the Wolverines back on the map and will likely breed a whole new generation of Michigan basketball fans, and it will no doubt help with recruiting. Whether Michigan wins it all this season or not, Beilein’s squad has achieved something only 26 other teams have done in the last 20 years: climb to number one. And for Michigan fans who have bled maize and blue through the lean times that have consumed the past 15 years, it matters.