The Michigan basketball team has officially reached the halfway point of non-conference play. Sporting a 4-2 record with losses at upstart Iowa State and to unranked Charlotte, the Wolverines have not exactly lived up to their preseason billing.
The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' polls both had the Maize and Blue ranked inside the top 10. Following a pair of performances that clearly displayed room for improvement, Michigan now sits at No. 20 and No. 22 nationally.
There are plenty of upcoming opportunities for the Wolverines to get back on track, though, before Big Ten Conference play begins. As brutal as Michigan's remaining non-conference slate looks, league play will be even more daunting.
Michigan State is the No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State and Wisconsin are both in the top 10 as well. Iowa is on the rise and in the top 25, too. Do not sleep on Indiana or Illinois either.
However, these early season struggles are certainly not a reason to panic. There have been plenty of positive signs. Keep in mind, this is a team that lost its two leading scorers from a year ago and is still figuring out how to work as a cohesive unit.
As mentioned, though, there are reasons to be excited about these Wolverines.
Nik Stauskas has become the go-to scorer head coach John Beilein and Co. recruited him to be. The sophomore is averaging 20.3 points per game, shooting 47.4 percent from beyond the arc and 50.7 percent overall.
Caris LeVert has gone from being a key reserve to a legitimate starter playing 30-plus minutes a night, which is a rather large leap. He has struggled against Michigan's tougher opponents, but in time, the Ohioan will adjust and be a solid addition to the starting five.
Improvements must be made if this group hopes to contend for a Big Ten title. There are six non-conference games left for the Wolverines to round into form. Here are the goals the Maize and Blue should be focusing on to right the ship before January.
Most take for granted how difficult it is to remain healthy for an entire season. Michigan fans are finding out just how spoiled they were a year ago when starters rarely missed significant minutes due to injury.
This season, Stauskas has already sustained an ankle injury. Glenn Robinson III hurt his back against Charlotte. Mitch McGary is just returning to action after being hobbled during the offseason with a "lower back condition."
None of these ailments appear to be serious, but if this is a sign of things to come, it will be a very bumpy road for the Wolverines.
Head coach John Beilein needs to make sure Michigan comes out and takes lesser opponents to the woodshed early, so he can rest the starters and avoid injuries.
Get Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary Some Confidence
This applies more to Glenn Robinson III than it does to Mitch McGary, but confidence is not exactly at an all-time high for either of them right now.
Robinson is still trying to adapt to being "the guy" offensively for the Wolverines. Striking a balance between out of control and passive is what he needs to do in order to become the star NBA scouts believe he can be at the college level.
Knocking down jump shots is also an area in which he must get better. The 6'6" 220-pounder is shooting a mere 36 percent on two-point jumpers and 25 percent from distance. Those numbers have to come up for Michigan to succeed.
Games against Coppin State, Houston Baptist and Holy Cross will be perfect opportunities for the sophomore small forward to get some swagger back.
The same goes for McGary. Playing 77 minutes in the span of four days at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off is not exactly how Michigan wanted to ease him back into the flow of things following his return from a back problem.
The Wolverines will have four days off between the Coppin State and Duke games. After that, Michigan plays three games in the span of three weeks. That is perfect spacing for a recovering McGary.
His play on the floor has not been bad, but it has not exactly been reminiscent of last season's NCAA tournament. The big man is averaging 8.8 points and 7.8 rebounds since returning to the rotation.
Getting him all the way back to postseason form is what the Wolverines need to do during the rest of non-conference play.
Win Two of the Three Marquee Games
There are three marquee games left on the non-conference slate: Duke, Arizona and Stanford. It may be a tall order for Michigan to win two of those matchups but with great expectations comes big goals. If the Wolverines want to validate the notion they are a contender, going 2-1 in the national spotlight is a must.
Seeing as traveling to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face the Blue Devils is by far the biggest challenge, the Maize and Blue should set their sights on Arizona and Stanford.
These are games in which McGary and Robinson have to be at their best. The Wildcats have a pair of versatile forwards in Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley. These guys are monsters that Michigan's stars must contain.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal will be very similar to Florida State. They can pound the ball inside with Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis. Once Stanford establishes a presence in the paint, Anthony Brown, who is shooting 62 percent from three-point range, can scorch teams on the perimeter.
Home court will help the Wolverines against Arizona. Traveling to Brooklyn will provide this young group with a friendly environment. Neither of those things guarantees a victory, though.
If Robinson and McGary can emerge as stars and take some of the weight off Stauskas, Michigan can win both of those games. Without efficient play from those two, it could be a long season in Ann Arbor.
Stats courtesy of www.hoop-math.com.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.
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