Entering the season off of their first run to the Final Four and National Championship game appearance in over 20 years, the Michigan Wolverines had to deal with the losses of two first round NBA Draft picks in Trey Burke (Utah Jazz) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks). Most weren’t worried about this because they had two other projected first round picks in Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. returning to action.
Unfortunately the season didn’t begin as the Wolverines had hoped as McGary began the season dealing with a back injury and missed the first two games, returning just in time for the big game against Iowa State, which the Wolverines lost 77-70 in a hard fought game.
Things didn’t get much better for Michigan as they struggled through the season, suffering other losses to Charlotte, Duke and Arizona. It didn’t take long for people to begin questioning Michigan’s validity for the NCAA Tournament as they had yet to gain a marquee victory. With McGary on the floor, the Wolverines were 4-4 and struggled to find an identity as a team without Burke running point.
Nearly a month ago it was announced that McGary would be out indefinitely as he chose to undergo back surgery as he could no longer deal with the pain he was suffering from. Michigan was at a crossroads. They were struggling with McGary on the floor, but the All-American candidate gave them another dimension. Many began to wonder if this was a lost season for the Wolverines.
Eight games later, those who wondered what Michigan had to offer are now asking themselves if Michigan may be a better team without McGary on the floor. After their soft start to the season, John Beilein has led his squad to eight-straight victories, including a 6-0 start to Big Ten play, the toughest conference in the country.
At the beginning of this stretch of success, Derrick Walton Jr. had finally gotten his feet under him. The freshman struggled early this year to find his own identity as the team’s point guard, unable to shed the label of “the guy who’s replacing Trey Burke”. He was playing splendid basketball and the team was finally starting to click. However, it’s been another player that has been the biggest factor to the Wolverine’s great Big Ten start.
Nik Stauskas came into the season completely refocused and reenergized for Michigan, becoming an elite scorer in all aspects of the game rather than just being a threat from three-point range. He began the season on fire, scoring 20 points or more in five of the first six games of the season. He didn’t get a chance to shine in the spotlight, however, as struggled to get anything going against Duke, totaling only four points and getting up only two shots in the game as a whole.
Stauskas sort of dropped off of most people’s radars, but he has continued his great season, shown by his stretch of three-straight games of 20 points or more, including 23 on the road against Wisconsin. Stauskas not only can still light it up from downtown (shooting over 44 percent from 3-point range again this season), he can cut to the basket, finish at the rim, take players off the dribble and dominate in many different ways. Nik Stauskas has been a leader for a leaderless team and provided a huge boost to Michigan this season. If he keeps this up, people will no longer be able to ignore him in the Player of the Year discussion.
Michigan is on a tear thanks to Nik Stauskas stepping up in a big way. While many have expected Glenn Robinson Jr. to be the star without McGary on the floor, it’s been Stauskas leading the way. It’s going to take a team effort for the Wolverines to continue their hot streak as they travel to play Michigan State this Saturday night. A daunting task, but as long as Stauskas is playing at such a high level, it’s very possible we’ll be hearing the Michigan Wolverine’s announced as the Big Ten Champions later this season.