Ann Arbor — Last season, Michigan had the 1-2 punch of national player of the year Trey Burke, along with Tim Hardaway Jr.
In tight games, they presented problems for the defense to try to guard on the perimeter, opening opportunities for other.
This season — to a different degree — the Wolverines have sophomores Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert.
The pair showed their value in Sunday’s 79-70 victory over Michigan State, with Stauskas tallying 25 points — one off his career high — and LeVert 23. Stauskas likely is one of the favorites for Big Ten player of the year, but LeVert’s contributions have helped Michigan stay in contention this season.
With four games left, the Wolverines (19-7, 11-3 Big Ten) are in the driver’s seat to claim the conference regular-season title.
“That’s been the big story of this year is Caris LeVert — he’s been able to get over 20 more than a few times now,” coach John Beilein said.
“Caris just kept us in that. He had a couple really tough shots. You don’t get many open shots against Michigan State.”
In the first half, LeVert hit two jumpers in a 10-0 run that erased an 11-point deficit. Just before halftime, he scored nine of Michigan’s final 11 points, with an exclamation-point 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
“That was big, definitely,” Stauskas said. “To have that 3 go down and only be down by two going into halftime, the way we opened up that game, we felt really good about where we were.”
TV replays showed him running back up the court, confident the shot would fall.
“I knew it was good as soon as it left my hand,” said LeVert, who added three rebounds and three assists. “It was big. It got our crowd back into the game and the crowd did a good job carrying us.”
He went 3-of-5 on 3-pointers and his final one at the 8:05 mark — followed by an emphatic dunk — gave U-M its largest lead at 64-52, with 7:22 left.
Michigan shot 50 percent (27-of-54) from the field for the game behind Stauskas and LeVert, but Beilein credited the unselfish play — and only three turnovers — for the win.
“Everybody was really connected the whole game. We had no ball-begging, no one not willing to share the ball because they hadn’t had a shot in while,” he said. “We were really connected offensively and looked for the shot that we make. That’s what we preach — make these shots you make every day in practice.
“This is not a time to experiment and not a time to turn down shots because you missed one or two. Take the shots, make the plays we make every day. We’ve practiced 100 days — you have to trust what you’ve done those 100 days.”
In the zone
Michigan had struggled defensively over the past few games, but got some key stops in the second half, as its offense clicked, to pull away.
Beilein used the 1-3-1 zone, which seemed to stifle the Spartans, who shot 59 percent in the first half and 54 percent (26-of-48) for the game.
“Credit my assistants big time on that one, because it’s hard to get me to go zone sometimes. We do practice it and we’re improving in it,” Beilein said. “I’ve gone from using it so much to hating giving up a 3-ball.
But with the Spartans hitting shots from the inside and outside, Beilein knew he needed something different.
“We had to change — they’re so good at running what they do that we just wanted a change. Tom is great at coming out a timeout and running a play that they either get fouled or get an open shot,” Beilein said. “We thought maybe some of those times we’d go zone coming out a timeout — now he’s got two plays coming out a timeout and they won’t be so damned good in either one of them but they usually are.”
All gassed out
Michigan State, which played one of its best games this season in a blowout win Thursday at Purdue, seemed to be fatigued after a quick turnaround on Sunday.
“They played a late Thursday night game at Purdue and I’m sure they got back late,” Beilein said. “That can happen to teams on two days’ rest. Frankly, we were concerned about this week — maybe we got out of shape or drove them too hard.”
Back in the saddle
In a recent offensive malaise, Glenn Robinson III seemed to break out of it against the Spartans, with 15 points and five rebounds. Beilein liked his effort and aggressiveness.
“He was so active today and that’s who he needs to be — have a high motor. He’s got so much athleticism,” Beilein said. “That last dunk he had, seemed like he was above the square and a great pass by Nik. That’s who he is; he’s got to be a motor man — that’s when he’s at his best. He was that today.”
Robinson had two straight U-M baskets during a critical stretch early in the second half where Michigan pulled ahead. To continue toward a Big Ten title, Robinson might have to have more of that.
“Package that up — as you work on your other skill set — this one has to always be constant. He knows it; I think he’ll know it more after today.