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ANN ARBOR — There will be a new No. 1 in college basketball next week. On Thursday night, the Michigan Wolverines made the case it should be them.
UM moved closer to its first perch atop the country in more than 20 years, brushing off an uneven start in a 68-53 victory against Purdue at Crisler Arena.
A night after top-ranked Duke was poleaxed at Miami, the No. 2 Wolverines (18-1, 5-1 Big Ten) endured an early scare before turning serious in the second half.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke had a game-high 15 points and eight assists to lead four Michigan players in double figures — including the Purdue legacy who set in motion the Wolverines’ deciding push. Freshman Glenn Robinson III, son of the former Boilermakers superstar by the same name, hit 3-pointers to bookend a 10-0 run that put UM ahead for good.
"I'm just really happy," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "You can see that’s Big Ten basketball at a very high level."
And perhaps no one plays it at a higher level than the Wolverines — a validation that may come Monday when the new Associated Press Top 25 is released.
Michigan could climb to No. 1 for the first time since November, 1992 with a win Sunday at Illinois, where it will face a familiar intersection. The Wolverines were ranked second and poised to ascend two weeks ago before falling at Ohio State.
But the green bunch that wilted early in Columbus is not the same one of today. UM, which regularly plays seven underclassmen, showed well in the second half at OSU and answered with an 83-75 win last week at No. 9 Minnesota — its first road win against a top-10 opponent since 1996.
"It’s just mental toughness," Beilein said. "As we play against better and better teams, which we see every day in the Big Ten, you’ve to be poised with your decisions. You have to hit singles, that’s how you score points. The days of, ‘Maybe we can go for some home runs and still win,' it doesn't work. We learned that down in Columbus."
Michigan showed that poise Thursday.
Purdue (10-9, 3-3), fighting through a transition season after six straight NCAA tournament trips, silenced the Wolverines’ fifth straight sellout crowd of 12,693 with a hail of early 3-pointers. The Boilermakers hit 7 of 13 deep balls in the first half and wondered if it was their night when forward D. J. Byrd’s third 3 caromed hard off the backboard to lead 28-26.
But after leading by as many as seven in the first half, they cooled after the break, in no small part because Beilein challenged Michigan’s grit. With little adjustment other than switching Tim Hardaway, Jr., on to Byrd, UM held Purdue to 20 points on 33.3 percent shooting (8 of 24). None came via the 3.
All the while, Robinson energized Michigan offensively while just maybe earning a measure of vindication.
Robinson once appeared a potential future Boilermaker. Purdue coach Matt Painter played alongside his father, an All-American and the No. 1 pick of the 1994 NBA draft, while Robinson grew up in St. John, Ind.
Painter recruited Robinson but he said this week he ran out of scholarships — another way of saying he either whiffed in the pursuit or evaluation of the 6-foot-6 forward.
Michigan, though, is glad to have him. Robinson hit a baseline 3 to put Michigan ahead 42-40 early in the second half, then sank another one to close the 10-0 run. He finished with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
"Purdue was part of my early recruitment, but i think I made a great decision to come here," Robinson said afterward. "I love it here. There’s a great coaching staff, great teammates, it’s worked out perfect. There’s no hard feelings. I know a couple of things have been going on with people saying coach painter [didn’t] recruit me. It’s nothing like that."
In any case, Beilein said with a smile, "I hope our guys take every game personal."
Hardaway and freshman Nik Stauskas added 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Painter said the Wolverines are better than last year, when they earned a share of the Big Ten title but fell 75-61 to Purdue at home.
"Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, I wouldn’t call them the same players," Painter said. "They've made some strides and matured as players, and they have two mature freshmen in Robinson and Stauskas. Both of those guys do a good job of turning things down and moving the basketball and picking their spots.
"They have a really cerebral team. They have an efficient offensive team, and they have physical play at [center], especially defensively. They just have a great mix."
Maybe the best one in the country.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.