December 21, 2012 at 1:00 am

Rod Beard

Is Michigan on road to Final Four? Five things we've learned

Following Michigan's disappointing loss in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament in March and Trey Burke's uncertainty about returning for his sophomore season, the outlook for this season was cloudy.

Six weeks into the season, Michigan has risen to from fifth to second in the national polls and looking like a squad that will challenge for the title in a stacked Big Ten — and certainly get past the first weekend when March rolls back around.

The Wolverines are off to a 12-0 start — the second-best in school history, behind the 16-0 mark in the 1985-86 season. But with five other Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25 — Indiana (sixth), Ohio State (seventh), Illinois (10th), Minnesota (13th) and Michigan State (20th) — the road ahead for U-M is replete with plenty of potential potholes.

If the Wolverines are to make a run, they will have to continue the stellar play they have shown in the non-conference schedule. Here are five things we've learned about the Wolverines in the first 12 games:

Burke's even better

Sophomore point guard Trey Burke is better than advertised — before his arrival from Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio, and following a standout freshman season. Burke was named a preseason All-American and has shown he merits the honor, leading U-M with 17.4 points, 7.1 assists and shooting 36 percent on 3-pointers.

He's become a better game manager, discerning when to get teammates involved and when to score, and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.5. In his last seven games, he has 51 assists and just seven turnovers.

"Sometimes less is more with all players. He's trying to make really simple plays," coach John Beilein said. "He wants to win at everything in life and he wants to be the best he can, and he understands that's a good number to have if you want to be a winner as a point guard or a great Michigan player."

Burke showed his versatility in the win over North Carolina State, notching nine assists in the first half while going scoreless. He had 18 points in the second half and added two assists, setting a new career high.

No one-man show

Though Burke has made significant improvement, he's not the only one carrying the load offensively for U-M. Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 15.8 points and two freshmen, Nik Stauskas (13.4) and Glenn Robinson Jr. (11.4), also are averaging in double figures.

The main rotation includes 10 players averaging seven minutes or more and five true freshmen are in the mix.

"It's very big (when we're unselfish) and really takes work off me, and Trey's and Nik's shoulders as guards, and builds confidence in (the post players) that are making lay-ups and cashing it in," Hardaway said.

Big man Jon Horford suffered a dislocated kneecap last week but Michigan is better able to handle the setback because of depth in the frontcourt with Mitch McGary, Max Bielfeldt and Blake McLimans.

Freshman Spike Albrecht has shown that he can hold his own in backing up Burke and allowing him to get rest so that he's fresher throughout the season.

Fresh faces

Many experts pegged the five-man freshman class to be impactful, but the group has become critical to Michigan's success. Robinson cracked the starting lineup from the beginning of the season and is averaging 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds. He's a somewhat quiet contributor, as Burke and Hardaway — and even Stauskas — get most of the offensive attention.

Stauskas came off the bench for the first six games, but after showing pinpoint 3-point shooting, moved ahead of senior Matt Vogrich to a starting nod. He's scored in double figures in the last 11 games, including 20 points in 33 minutes against N.C. State and 16 points — with a season-best five triples — against Eastern Michigan.

McGary has provided size, hustle and energy in the post and Spike Albrecht has been a more-than-adequate backup at point guard. Caris LeVert, who was a redshirt candidate, broke out for a season-best eight points against Eastern Michigan and has moved into the rotation.

Hitting the boards

With a lack of size in the frontcourt, rebounding was one of the Wolverines' biggest deficiencies last season. But with the additions of freshmen Robinson (6-foot-6) and McGary (6-10), U-M has outrebounded all but one (N.C. State) of its opponents.

With Hardaway, Stauskas, Robinson and Morgan, Michigan has four players at 6-6 or taller in the starting lineup. Last season, they were outsized and outmuscled.

So far this season, the Wolverines are leading the Big Ten in rebounding defense — a stat showing they aren't allowing many second chances. They're also third in the conference in rebounding margin, at plus-10.0.

McGary (5.8 points, 5.8 rebounds) had his first career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds in Thursday's win and he's getting more confidence as he learns how referees are calling games.

Going for it

Beilein was hesitant to start more than one freshman initially, but has made it work by keeping Burke or Hardaway in the lineup to help them get more accustomed. By playing all five freshmen in the rotation and pushing back some of his upperclassmen, Beilein is showing that he's going to try to get the most out of this group, which appears to have Final Four potential.

Beilein's not afraid to put his best players on the floor, which has led to U-M being near the top of the national rankings in field-goal percentage. As always, he maintains a focus on defense, shown by the low number of fouls committed and the increased toughness with rebounding. The squad still doesn't create a great number of turnovers with steals and blocks, but they're improving their team defense, and their offensive efficiency helps them get back and set up their defense.

Beilein won't talk about the good start or the No. 2 ranking, but in his mind, he knows this is a special group and he probably won't have all of the pieces back next year — so he'll look to seize the opportunity now.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

Trey Burke's outstanding play has many analysts saying he's a candidate for national player of the year. / Steve Perez / Detroit News
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