February 24, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Nik Stauskas gives Michigan shot it needs to level Michigan State

Beilein, Stauskas on victory over MSU
Beilein, Stauskas on victory over MSU: John Beilein, Nik Stauskas talk about importance of win and how it went down.

Ann Arbor — When it was time to take over, Nik Stauskas took over, and the Wolverines took what they wanted. They beat their rivals again and grabbed command of the Big Ten race, and make no mistake, this was a forceful takeover.

Michigan spied weakness and exploited it, and in a Crisler Center atmosphere as raucous as ever, Michigan State buckled. The Spartans might be wounded but the Wolverines knew exactly where to hit ’em and how to hit ’em. It happened in a flash, in a Nik of time, as the Wolverines showed they’re not relinquishing their newfound power status.

Michigan rolled to a 79-70 victory Sunday, and by the end Stauskas was heaving a spectacular alley-oop to Glenn Robinson III and the crowd was whooping crazily. The Wolverines have won six of eight in the rivalry and this was the best they’ve looked, picking apart the Spartans’ fabled defense. Now the Big Ten title is theirs if they want it, alone in first at 11-3 with a half-game lead on the Spartans and a favorable schedule ahead.

Michigan State led by as many as 11 in the first half, but when Stauskas and Caris LeVert turned it on, there was no turning it off. Stauskas scored 25 points — 21 in the second half — and LeVert finished with 23, and they did all the scoring during a withering 21-4 run.

This was the Michigan offense we’d been waiting to see again, the synchronistic John Beilein attack that rolled all the way to the NCAA title game last year. It was fair to wonder if the Wolverines could get that spark back, losing so many key elements. But Beilein has done a terrific job, and when Stauskas gets it going, it’s back.

“I just came out with the mindset in the second half that I wasn’t gonna be stopped,” said Stauskas, 9-for-13 from the floor. “It just seems I’m being contained every game. I kind of came out and said, ‘I’m done with this. I’m not gonna be contained anymore.’ ”

This has been the vexing challenge for Stauskas, who admits he misses the days when he could rise from the shadows cast by Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. After a blistering start to the season, he hadn’t taken over since scoring 19 at Michigan State last month.

Double trouble

The Spartans didn’t have Adreian Payne for that game but he was back for this one, and for a while, it appeared to be the difference. When Tom Izzo’s team is playing its normal frenetic defense, it can shut down virtually any single player. It can’t shut down multiple players, and on this day, the Spartans couldn’t keep up.

Gary Harris played solid defense on Stauskas, until LeVert got hot. Then Harris had to switch to LeVert, which left sore-wristed Keith Appling to try to handle the 6-6 Stauskas, and that wasn’t happening. Izzo gave Michigan appropriate credit, but the Spartans had no answer to the poise and energy of the Wolverines, who committed only three turnovers.

“We looked tired, and I was not very proud of our effort,” Izzo said. “It’s been a strange year, and it doesn’t get any stranger than going to your rival and shooting 54 percent, 40 percent on 3s, and lose. That’s because I think we’ve become too much of an offensive team and not as good a defensive team, and eventually that gets you.”

Izzo is feeling a bit shell-shocked these days, and not just because of the injuries. This began like a Michigan State lockdown, but there’s a reason Michigan has risen from stepchild to formidable foe. Beilein adjusted his offense, jumped to a zone defense and effectively kept probing until he found something that worked.

It helps when you have a pair like Stauskas and LeVert, both shooting better than 40 percent on 3-pointers, both improving rapidly at attacking the basket, both increasingly fearless. LeVert has been a revelation, possibly the most improved player in the country. So the Spartans could be forgiven if they weren’t prepared to handle both, and they certainly weren’t prepared for Stauskas’ second-half dead-eye.

Good as gold

The sophomore from Canada said he enjoyed his country’s hockey gold medal at the Sochi Olympics, but this was more about Maize mettle, and it was amazing at times. Beilein has a pretty good system working when he sometimes has to beg players to shoot more.

“Nik is looking for a perfect play all the time, and shooters gotta shoot it,” Beilein said. “He’s a tremendous shooter, and we just encourage him to be more aggressive. Sometimes what’s a bad shot for others is a really good shot for him.”

Good shots can become better shots against smaller point guards, as long as Stauskas takes advantage. The new formula to stop him is with a quicker defender, first used by Indiana and Yogi Ferrell.

When Stauskas saw the switch, he knew it was time for a little blood, caused by Nik and cuts.

“I’ve kind of struggled to figure things out, but the funny thing is, there’s not really anything to figure out,” Stauskas said. “It’s just a mindset to not let anyone stop me. When they put Appling on me, I figured I could shoot over him, and when I got into the lane, I could kind of bully my way in.”

He bullied and blasted away, and when he drilled a 3-pointer for a 59-52 lead, he unleashed a series of fist pumps that ratcheted the noise. Near the end, the U-M student section even got nostalgic, cranking up the “Little Brother!” chant as the season sweep was completed.

The Spartans are hurting, but that wasn’t the point of this clash. The Wolverines are still inflicting pain, still capable of going far, as far as their rapid-fire marksmen take them.


Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas scored 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half Sunday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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