December 2, 2012 at 1:00 am

Rod Beard

Just fabulous: Freshmen put Michigan in prime position for championship chase

It was just a matter of time before Michigan coach John Beilein did what had to be done.

Fans saw it in games, the players saw it in practice, but the coaches had to make sure the timing was right.

Beilein decided before Saturday's game against Bradley to give freshman Nik Stauskas his first start, in place of senior Matt Vogrich. It's just one sign that shows Beilein and the Wolverines are putting all their chips in the middle of the table and going for it all this year.

After getting a share of the regular-season Big Ten title last year, No. 3 Michigan is looking like one of the favorites in the Big Ten and a national-title contender with its infusion of freshman talent rounding out a talented core.

Stauskas scored 22 points Saturday, topping his season-best 20 points set in Tuesday's victory over No. 18 North Carolina State.

Beilein had the luxury of bringing Stauskas' scoring off the bench for the first six games, but it became apparent that he needed the 6-foot-6 swingman in the starting five.

"He's doing too many other good things," Beilein said after Saturday's win. "If he hadn't played such good defense the other night against (N.C. State's Scott) Wood, this wouldn't have happened. He's showing he can guard some people, he can get in the lane and he obviously can shoot."

Stauskas not only has overtaken Vogrich, he's nearing leading scorers Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke in terms of his value. When teams try to take away Burke and Hardaway, Stauskas has shown the ability to make clutch shots.

"Every time we could kind of get it close, Stauskas banged a 3," Bradley coach Geno Ford said.

Besides Stauskas, Beilein has forged integral roles for freshmen Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht. On Saturday, he inserted Caris LeVert, who hadn't played in the regular season and appeared to be headed for a redshirt.

Beilein loves and trusts his veteran players but there's no denying talent. He has said he's hesitant to play too many freshmen on the floor at the same time, but their talent has forced his hand. It's reminiscent of the Fab Five era, when coach Steve Fisher didn't want to start all five freshmen but finally relented and put Ray Jackson in the starting lineup early in February of the 1991-92 season.

While Beilein doesn't have the same problem that Fisher had — as Burke and Hardaway continue to be the best players — he continues to work to find the right rotations and roles. As the freshmen get more acclimated to his complex system in practice, they're able to translate it to production on the court, meaning stalwart veterans such as Vogrich, Eso Akunne and Blake McLimans could assume reduced roles in the name of team success.

Dealing with depth

McGary is competing against starter Jordan Morgan and reserves Jon Horford and Max Bielfeldt for playing time, in what has become an embarrassment of post-man riches for Beilein. Last season, the Wolverines rotated between Morgan, McLimans, and an undersized Zack Novak while Horford missed most of the season because of foot injuries and Bielfeldt redshirted.

Though he hasn't started a game this season, McGary (5.0 points, 5.6 rebounds) has proved to be a valuable asset. His hustle and 6-foot-10 frame have provided needed size and depth in the middle, as he's recovered from foot injuries early in the season.

"We still have those lab coats on, trying to figure it out," Beilein said Tuesday. "Mitch is a different player than he was a month ago, so a month ago, we were trying to do one thing."

If Beilein is a mad scientist, he at least has the wherewithal to look at every part of his team, from starters to the last man in the regular rotation. Playing LeVert wasn't a show of desperation; rather, it shows a willingness to strengthen one of the Wolverines' weaker areas.

"Our intention is not to just burn (LeVert's redshirt) for two minutes a game. We put him in the top eight or nine and hopefully he'll play even more minutes than that," Beilein said. "One of his roles will be a defensive stopper out there; Hardaway needs three or four minutes of rest and Tim has become an excellent defender, so we didn't want to drop off on defense and (LeVert) can do that."

Beilein's decisions are based on last season's weaknesses, when they were outmuscled by teams such as Ohio State and Michigan State, outhustled by Indiana, and didn't have the athletes or depth to avoid losing to Ohio in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, the freshmen have changed all that.

Michigan has six more nonconference games in the next month before the Big Ten season starts. Beilein will have more time to tinker and test.

"I always thought the first Saturday in December was always a great time — the football team is finishing and there are some great Saturday games," he said. "Saturday basketball in December like this is officially the turnover — it's basketball season."

For the Wolverines, it's not just time for basketball, it's time for winning.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

Nik Stauskas has scored in double figures in every game except the opener against Slippery Rock. / Seth Perlman / Associated Press
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