When the Associated Press releases its weekly men's basketball rankings on Monday, the Michigan Wolverines will more than likely be number one.
This, by itself, is a meaningless distinction.
Number one rankings are a wonderful tool if you want to know which college basketball team has gone the longest without losing, or which one was deemed the most hype-worthy before the season began. But if you want to know which team is the best in the country—or even which one has the best overall resume (Florida, anyone?)—you're better served looking elsewhere.
The flaws in the system dictate that Michigan will be the number one team on Monday. Not because Michigan is necessarily better than Kansas, Duke, Syracuse or any number of other elite teams, but because Michigan was ranked second overall last week and the team in front of it lost.
Stupid, I know, and an exercise almost always unworthy of further commentary.
But in Michigan's case, I'll make an exception, if only because it's been 21 years since the program last held a number one ranking. And my what a long, weary 21 years it was.
This story dates back to 1992, but it begins with urgency ten years later in the fall of 2002. On November 7 of that year, university president Mary Sue Coleman announced that the school would voluntarily vacate every game from the 1992-93 season in response to charges stemming from the Ed Martin booster scandal.
And with that, the Fab Five era was gone.
No baggy shorts. No black socks.
No phantom timeout.
Those self-imposed sanctions were the final gut punch in a long series of institutional failures, and a somber benchmark of just how far the program had fallen.
When current head coach John Beilein arrived in 2007, Michigan hadn't qualified for the NCAA tournament in nine years and was in many ways still nursing old wounds. Michigan's inability to break through under ousted coach Tommy Amaker was not merely a perpetual frustration, but itself a subtle reminder that the program had not been its fullest, most fruitful self since the scandal-plagued days of yore.
Almost 15 years after the fact, Michigan basketball was still stuck in the cultural echo created by Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and their brilliant assault on the last vestiges of Pre-Hip-Hop America.
Early returns under Beilein did little to uproot the malaise. The former West Virginia coach lost more than he won during his first three years in Ann Arbor, and his debut season was among the worst in school history.
But under the surface changes were afoot, highlighted by the enrollment of Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2010 and culminating with the arrival of Glenn Robinson III, another scion of NBA royalty, two years later. In other words, the players were coming back. Not necessarily in bushels of five and not necessarily drenched in frenzied expectation, but they were coming back nonetheless.
Which brings us to the present, and a team bubbling with offensive brilliance. After beating Illinois 74-60 on Sunday, the Wolverines now sit at 19-1 on the year and 6-1 in Big 10 play. Along with Indiana, Michigan is the widely acknowledged co-favorite in America's toughest conference.
But you already knew that before Sunday.
An impending promotion to number one changes nothing about the Wolverines or their long-term basketball prognosis. This is still an incredibly gifted young team with depth issues and worrisome defensive holes. Whether or not this group fulfills its promise has nothing to do with the AP rank it achieves in late January.
But if you're the type that's interested in ghosts and legacies and all manner of intangible things, Michigan at number one should mean something to you.
After more than two decades of scandal and failure, Michigan basketball has rediscovered its lost greatness, and in the process shed some small bit of the burden left by those five men who once made it so.
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