East Lansing — After a disappointing 6-4 start to the season, Michigan has turned things around early in the Big Ten schedule, taking over the conference lead after its 80-75 victory over Michigan State on Saturday night.
No. 21 U-M (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) leads the Spartans by a half-game in the standings and has a two-game edge over third-place Iowa. It’s an unlikely turnaround, fueled by a nine-game win streak, including three straight over top-10 teams — the first time a team has accomplished that feat since 1987.
“I know we beat three really good teams. It’s three teams that I think will be in the top four or five in the Big Ten,” coach John Beilein said. “To beat those, that’s what really means a lot because now you have a game up on them in some regard for the Big Ten championship, which to every coach in this league is what we’re trying to do.
“The national stuff, forget about it. It’s about the Big Ten right now.”
It’s also the best start the Wolverines have had in the Big Ten since 1976-77, when they opened with eight straight conference wins.
To have the latest victory come over rival MSU (18-2, 7-1) makes the upset a little sweeter, especially after a 75-52 drubbing last season at the Breslin Center.
“It feels awesome. Last year was a low point for us because we had never gotten beat by 30 before, said Nik Stauskas, who had 19 points, “so to come back here this year and get a win in a hostile environment, there’s no better feeling than this.”
With the success the Spartans have had recently, it’s a big win for Michigan, which was playing without preseason All-American Mitch McGary (back surgery), who has missed all nine games in the streak.
“In the seven years now that I’ve been at Michigan, I know if you’re going to contend for this championship, you better have some success against Michigan State,” Beilein said. “This is one step in the right direction with a long way to go.”
For U-M, it’s the fifth win in the last seven meetings with MSU, tilting the rivalry — at least for a while — in the Wolverines’ favor, with an expected bump up in the national rankings Monday.
The surge in recent weeks, with four straight road conference wins, puts Michigan in a position to be the Big Ten favorite, but with 11 games remaining, there’s still a lot of basketball to play.
“I try not to read, but a week ago, we were 4-0 at that point and we had this stretch and people said we would fall off the map now and lose some games,” Stauskas said. “It shows the resilience of this team — we’re never going to quit and we’re always going to keep fighting.”
Stauskas cool under pressure
Much of the pregame talk was about the top two scorers in the conference, and MSU’s Gary Harris.
Stauskas was averaging 23.3 points and 19 in Big Ten games. He had 19 points Saturday, on 7-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-6 on 3-pointers. His 3-pointer with 3:11 left gave Michigan the lead for good, at 63-60.
“I was trailing behind Caris (LeVert), and I kind of figured he was going to drop it off, but I didn’t know he was going to do it,” Stauskas said. “I just tried to shoot it deep in the bucket.”
Stauskas’ biggest contribution might have been keeping Beilein from getting a technical foul. Beilein was upset at a referees’ call and was heated — so much so Stauskas had to help hold him back.
“It’s very important to stay composed because we don’t want to be emotionally drunk and make bad decisions. I pulled him away because he was about to get a technical,” Stauskas said. “It was important with the crowd being loud to stay composed and stick to our game plan.”
One of the keys for Michigan was getting off to a good start and not letting Spartans get too much of a lead after they took control of the game in the second half.
MSU had an eight-point lead in each half, but the Wolverines found an answer and were able to regain the lead in the final six minutes and hold on. The start helped keep the Breslin Center from becoming deafening and disrupting their focus.
“The coaches preached that all week — we have to come out and have a great first four minutes — and I think we did that,” said LeVert, who had 17 points and a eight rebounds. “It feels great. This is the second win in four or five years, so it feels great to come in here and get a win, especially in a rivalry game.”
U-M made its first four field goals en route to a 10-2 advantage, but only hit 7-of-23 for the rest of the half. But hitting 5 of 8 3-pointers in the second half helped with a 48-percent clip in the final 20 minutes, en route to a 50-point outburst.
“Today we got off to a great start and that gave us a little bit of confidence,” Beilein said. “Then their defense really heated up and we acted like we’ve never seen anything like that. Once we got settled down, we were better. The start was helpful.”