March 28, 2014 at 1:22 am

John Niyo

Michigan's Nik Stauskas enjoys playing the agitator role

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Indianapolis — One kid threatened to break his fingers. Another time they had to call the cops.

On the eve of his latest Sweet 16 date, Michigan guard Nik Stauskas took a few moments Thursday to talk about feeling unloved. Or even hated, dating to his semi-villainous teenage years playing AAU basketball.

Long before he was the Big Ten player of the year, before he was blowing kisses to Michigan State fans at Breslin Center, the sophomore sharpshooter had grown comfortable wearing the black hat, mean-mugging opposing benches and throwing up the “three-goggles” after draining another corner trey.

It earned him that menacing postgame promise about his digits after a game against an AAU team from Georgia. And then there was that tournament in Las Vegas, where his Grassroots Canada team won a triple-overtime duel with an all-star group from New Jersey “and the other team tried to fight me after the game.”

“Yeah, police had to come,” Stauskas laughed. “It was bad.”

It feels good, though, he admits, to be a marked man, especially here in the middle of March Madness.

“I’m OK with getting under people’s skin a little bit, and maybe getting them a little frustrated,” shrugged Stauskas, Michigan’s leading scorer. “Because at the end of the day, it’s all part of the game. And any edge I can get is good.”

And his comfort in filling that edgy role for the Wolverines is a big reason — maybe the biggest reason — they’re back here again, playing basketball in a football stadium just before baseball’s Opening Day.

Targeted

Stauskas’ personal disappointment from last year’s NCAA runner-up finish helped fuel his offseason work. He added 15 pounds of muscle — added six inches to his vertical leap, too — and worked tirelessly to improve his all-around game. He also started scribbling down reminders in a notebook — players who’d beaten him out for awards, quotes that inspired or enraged — that he now carries with him everywhere.

“Not only losing the championship game, but just the fact that I didn’t play well personally those two games, it motivated me going into the summer,” said Stauskas, who made one basket in two games at the Final Four in Atlanta.

While Stauskas took the initiative, coach John Beilein presented the opportunity, reminding him more than once about the void waiting to be filled with the departure of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA.

“When both of them went pro (I said), ‘Nik, we have 80 more minutes, we have 25 more shots a game at least. Who’s going to get those?’ ” Beilein said.

Truth is, fellow sophomore Caris LeVert got most of them. But especially after center Mitch McGary was lost for the season with a back injury, Stauskas, blessed with one of the best pure shooting strokes in college, became the focal point of Michigan’s versatile attack. And of opponents’ defensive game plans, which admittedly took some getting used to.

“He was confident because he was untouchable — he thought nobody could stop him,” said Greg Harden, Michigan’s director of athletic counseling who sat down for a few individual sessions with Stauskas last fall. “And then he discovers that coaches are plotting and planning a defense to shut him down. That shocked him.”

Stauskas doesn’t hesitate when asked when he felt the first serious jolt. It was the game against Duke, playing on a bum ankle, when Mike Krzyzewski ran smaller guards at him — Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton — and Stauskas looked flustered, finishing without a basket in a 79-69 loss.

“That was the first time I really saw it, where teams adjusted and played me a different way,” said Stauskas, who’d see it again in losses at Indiana and Iowa in early February. “It took me maybe a couple months to finally figure it out. … I figured out how to be patient and aggressive at the same time and deal with those different defenses.”

And now, he says, “It’s just part of the deal. … It’s all part of growing up and maturing. You’ve got to realize that things aren’t always going to be easy.”

Versatility

It won’t be easy tonight, squaring off with Tennesssee’s top defender, Josh Richardson, a 6-foot-6 junior who hounded Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble into a 3-for-15 night in the Tournament opener. But Stauskas, coming off a 17-point, eight-assist effort against Texas, welcomes the challenge.

“I mean, it’s fun,” said Stauskas, who made a mockery of one of Beilein’s shooting drills in practice Monday, hitting 36 of 37 3-pointers in 90 seconds. “Just because you understand coming into the game that they’re concerned about you, and they’re worried about you.”

As they should be. Stauskas is hardly a ballhawk defensively, but he isn’t just a sniper like he was a year ago, when he’d defer to Burke and Hardaway and live in the shadows. Barely a quarter of his offense this season has come as a spot-up shooter.

“Now he puts the ball on the floor and makes plays,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He comes off the ball screen, can get to the rim, dunk the ball on you, go over the top of you.”

It’s why he’s viewed as a likely first-round pick if he opts to enter the NBA draft after this season. (“That decision is not gonna be made for a while,” he insisted.) It’s also why he’s viewed as more of a leader now by his teammates.

“Nik has a swagger about him, knowing that he’s the best player on the floor,” sophomore Spike Albrecht said. “I think the difference from last year to this year is he doesn’t have Trey and Tim, so now everyone’s looking at him and he knows he’s our go-to guy. And he has the confidence to take and make big shots at the end of the game. He wants the ball.”

But he wants more than that now. And that, according to Harden, whose work has been hailed by the likes of Tom Brady and Desmond Howard, is where the real growth has come.

“He moved from wanting to be a star to wanting to be a winner,” Harden said. “There’s a huge leap once you decide that trying to be a star is not nearly as rewarding as winning a championship. And he loves the idea of being a winner.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Nik Stauskas does a ball-handling drill with Caris LeVert during practice Thursday in Indianapolis. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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