February 9, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Rod Beard

Michigan's biggest challenge now is finding a way to free Nik Stauskas

Michigan guard Nik Stauskas, left, drives to the basket over Iowa center Adam Woodbury during the first half of Saturday's game in Iowa City. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Iowa City, Iowa — Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Nik Stauskas is none of these.

But he has been the closest thing to Superman for Michigan this season, leading the Wolverines to a 9-2 mark in the conference and a No. 10 national ranking.

Stauskas, a sophomore, is among the favorites for Big Ten player of the year following nine games of 20 points or more and the development of an all-around game after being primarily a 3-point shooter last season.

On the offensive end, Michigan (17-6, 9-2 Big Ten) mostly goes as Stauskas does. During the Wolverines’ toughest stretch of the season — three wins last month over teams ranked in the top 10 — Stauskas averaged 23 points, tying a career high with 26 against Iowa.

That scoring production has waned, as Stauskas totaled just 25 points in the last three games — including two losses. In the rematch at Iowa on Saturday, Stauskas had 10 points (3-of-6 shooting) and U-M lost, 85-67, as Stauskas was blanketed by Roy Devyn Marble, who finished with 26 points.

“A lot of that, I blame myself. I haven’t done my part offensively,” Stauskas said after Saturday’s loss. “It falls on me right now; I have to be more aggressive and make it happen.”

Michigan coach John Beilein has to be concerned with the two recent losses — and the three-game gauntlet ahead, including at No. 25 Ohio State Tuesday and at home versus Wisconsin and No. 9 Michigan State.

Losses to learn from

The message from Beilein is the Wolverines can learn from their losses and with the youngest team in the Big Ten.

“It’s good for us; we can look at several of our players and say OK, they guarded us this way and what did we do?” Beilein said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Indiana coach Tom Crean and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery have taken turns posing as Lex Luthor, conjuring schemes to neutralize Stauskas and find the Kryptonite for Beilein’s pick-and-roll offense.

For Crean, it meant putting Yogi Ferrell on Stauskas and guarding Michigan’s big men with a smaller defender who could guard a switch on the pick-and-roll. McCaffery put a more mobile Marble on Stauskas and shut down the driving lanes.

“They made a lot of adjustments and did some switches on our ball screens and handoffs which that made things difficult in denying me the ball,” Stauskas said. “When I did try to drive, all their guys were in the gaps and they were trying to clog up the lane, which made it tough for me to penetrate.”

The onus is on Beilein and his staff to come up with a counter to the adjustments that teams have made in the second half of the conference season.

When asked in the postgame news conference about what Iowa did to limit Stauskas, Beilein didn’t want to give any hints. You’ll have to watch film and figure that out. I don’t like giving up what happens all the time but they did a great job of playing attention to him and guarding him in ball screens a couple different ways,” he said.

Make them shoot

The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (49 percent) and 3-point percentage (39 percent). It seems counter-intuitive, but the key was in Iowa’s ability to clog the driving lanes in the paint and make Michigan shoot from the perimeter.

In the first half, U-M converted 41 percent from the field and 27 percent on triples, leading to a 14-point deficit.

“We felt like, to beat Michigan, you have to play the kind of defense that we played,” McCaffery said. “They have so many different weapons.”

Caris LeVert has picked up the offensive load, scoring in double figures in each of the last five games. He had 22 against Iowa and was able to get to the rim with more attention on Stauskas.

Freshman Zak Irvin (19 points) added some scoring punch off the bench on Saturday, but the bigger question mark is Glenn Robinson III, who finished with just two points. Robinson was coming off 23 points against Nebraska last Wednesday but that’s his only game in double digits in the last five.

Michigan has struggled defensively throughout the season, but with four weeks left in the regular season, the bigger concern is figuring out how to free up Stauskas and boost the offense. Stauskas has become a marked man In the final seven games, we’ll see whether that mark is actually an “S” on his chest.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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