Ann Arbor — For a couple years, things were pretty easy for Michigan.
The Wolverines won a share of the Big Ten championship in 2012 and made it to the final game of the NCAA Tournament in 2013. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. spearheaded a lot of the surge, with the ability to break down defenses with their ball-handling and deft shooting touch.
That left little for players like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to do besides play complementary roles and fill in the scoring blanks where needed.
With Burke and Hardaway gone to the NBA, the Wolverines (10-4, 2-0 Big Ten) have had to reinvent themselves, leaning on some of the same cast from last season — but in drastically different roles.
Where Stauskas was able to lurk around the 3-point line and wait for Burke and Hardaway to dish to him for open shots, he’s now forced to create his own opportunities and has become a distributor, with a career-best seven assists Thursday at Minnesota.
“I’m not getting any more open threes. All those shots I was getting last year with Trey, I’m not getting anything anymore,” Stauskas said after compiling 18 points, four rebounds and four assists in Sunday’s win over Northwestern. “If I’m going to score, it’s something I have to get on my own.”
It’s a role he’s grown into, as he leads the team in scoring (17.8 points) and assists (3.4) while growing into U-M’s most aggressive offensive option, as shown by his team-high 90 free-throw attempts this season.
“I like doing everything on the floor — a little bit of rebounding, a little bit of passing and scoring, too,” Stauskas added. “Whatever this team needs me to do.”
Stepping up at center
For coach John Beilein, it’s a suitable answer to the burning question in the preseason of who would take the last-second shot if needed. Beilein wouldn’t put pressure on any one player at the time, but has settled on Stauskas, who delivered on a last-second possession against Florida State, which turned into an overtime win.
“He’s got to just continue to understand, to whom much is given, much is expected,” Beilein said. “People are going to come out after him — he’s a real talent.”
McGary was expected to be another cornerstone to a banner season, but because of pending back surgery, he possibly could be lost for the rest of the season.
Cue Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, the only two players on the roster who aren’t sophomores or freshmen. Morgan (eight points and eight rebounds) and Horford (seven points and eight rebounds) filled in nicely against Northwestern, and Horford added a career-high 14 points against Minnesota. Along with Max Bielfeldt, they’re filling the gaping hole left by McGary’s injury.
“I love that our big guys were able to get 18 points and 16 rebounds between the three of them,” Beilein said. “We’re finding ways to make up for the injury to Mitch and they did a great job of it today.”
Neither has taken the baton to be the one go-to center, but they’ve split things up nicely, providing solid performances.
“They’ve been stepping up since Mitch has been out,” Stauskas said. “They’ve both taken a lot of pride in their role and have been through it all.”
But Beilein is careful to regulate their time on the floor — regardless of which one might have the hot hand — to ensure that neither wears down. Their experience, because of McGary’s injury, is proving vital now.
“We won a Big Ten championship with those two on a team that ended up having a pretty good year,” Beilein said. “They are just now getting back to a rhythm where they’re not looking over their shoulder. They’re in a good place.”
Northwestern coach Chris Collins lauded Morgan and Horford, noting their workmanlike discipline and ability to contribute on a team with so many other offensive options.
“They do the dirty work and they have a two-headed monster at that spot. They split the time and you look at a combination of out of that spot, they give you 15 points and 16 rebounds — that’s pretty good production,” he said. “They don’t run any plays for those guys; they play off penetration.
“They get to their spots, they catch and finish and they give them good defense, rebounding and toughness.”
It seems that simple, but it’s taken some growth to get there.
Time will tell how much that will help in the Big Ten season.