Michigan Basketball: Biggest Lessons Learned in Big Ten Play so Far

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IIJanuary 31, 2014

Michigan Basketball: Biggest Lessons Learned in Big Ten Play so Far

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    What have we learned about Derrick Walton Jr. through eight Big Ten games?
    What have we learned about Derrick Walton Jr. through eight Big Ten games?Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Sunday afternoon's trip to Indiana will officially mark the halfway point of Big Ten Conference play for the Michigan basketball team. Currently, the Wolverines are the only remaining undefeated team in the league with an 8-0 mark and boast victories over the five teams right behind them in the standings.

    These eight Big Ten games have revealed plenty about Michigan and where it stacks up among the nation's elite. It seems like just yesterday that some began to write the Wolverines off as a contender once Mitch McGary opted for season-ending back surgery.

    No one is doubting Michigan now. The following seven things are what everyone should take away from the Wolverines' surprising start to conference action. 

Nik Stauskas Can Score on Anybody

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    Nik Stauskas is borderline unstoppable right now.
    Nik Stauskas is borderline unstoppable right now.Al Goldis/Associated Press

    No one can stop Nik Stauskas right now. The sophomore shooting guard has scored at least 18 points in five Big Ten games, which is four more than he had in 18 league contests a season ago. Over the past five games, three of which were against Top 10 teams, Stauskas is averaging 21 points, 4.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds. To top it all off, he shot 52.3 percent from the field during that stretch.

    Not even arguably the nation's best two-way player, Michigan State's Gary Harris, managed to slow down the Canadian product.

    Against Harris and the Spartans, Stauskas went 7-of-12 overall and went 5-of-6 from beyond the arc en route to a 19-point performance.

    He has been a creator, both for himself and others, has one of the quickest releases in the country, an excellent handle and a knack for throwing nifty passes. All of this has made Michigan much more effective in the half court than it was a year ago.

    "They're a very good passing team, especially Stauskas," Purdue head coach Matt Painter said following Thursday's game, per John Borton of The Wolverine. "You rarely ever see a guy that scores the ball like that with that ability to pass, especially at that position. He's a very tough match-up. Any time you have your best player passing the ball like that, it's contagious. It really helps everything else."

    Stauskas has cemented himself as a legitimate candidate for the Wooden Award and will be one of the top vote-getters for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Best of luck to anyone trying to stop him. Keeping him in Ann Arbor for another season could prove to be just as challenging.

Glenn Robinson III Has Some Work Left to Do

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    Glenn Robinson III still has to shore up his perimeter game in order to be an effective NBA wing.
    Glenn Robinson III still has to shore up his perimeter game in order to be an effective NBA wing.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    It is becoming increasingly clear the best NBA prospect playing for the Michigan Wolverines is Nik Stauskas rather than Glenn Robinson III. Sure, the latter possesses freakish athleticism, but he has struggled to be efficient, as the level of competition in the Big Ten has increased.

    In three of the past five games, Robinson has shot 40 percent or less. He also went 0-for-7 from three-point range in Michigan's trio of contests against Top 10 opponents.

    There have been plenty of moments where Robinson looks like the NBA draft lottery pick he should be. However, there are other instances when he forces up difficult jump shots and slips back into being passive rather than aggressive.

    Shooting just 28.1 percent from distance, especially when 32.7 percent of his attempts are coming from three-point range, is not going to cut it at the next level.

    Robinson has to round out his perimeter and mid-range game before he can live up to his full potential.

There Is Nothing Wrong with Being a Role Player

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    Spike Albrecht is making major contributions in relief of Derrick Walton Jr.
    Spike Albrecht is making major contributions in relief of Derrick Walton Jr.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Not everyone can be a star and gobble up major minutes. However, this does not mean there is anything wrong with being a role player. In fact, one could argue Michigan's reserves are the only reason it is still undefeated in Big Ten action.

    Freshman shooting guard Zak Irvin could wind up being this year's version of Mitch McGary come NCAA tournament time. The former 5-star prospect is draining threes at a 40 percent clip, but he has struggled with consistency. For example, Irvin went 5-of-8 from beyond the arc to help the Wolverines hold off Minnesota only to follow it up with a combined seven points in their next four games.

    Hopefully by the postseason, Irvin is able to put it all together and heats up at the right time.

    Reserve point guard Spike Albrecht has been fantastic as well. He has dished out 48 assists and turned the ball over just nine times this season, which has been his biggest contribution in relief of Derrick Walton Jr.

    His shining moment came against Iowa. Albrecht started in place Walton, who had the flu, and finished with seven assists, four steals and zero turnovers. Not bad for a backup point guard.

    All the while, the combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford has made Michigan fans forget about Mitch McGary being sidelined. The two have averaged 14.7 points and 10.4 rebounds thus far in conference play, which is the best the Wolverines could have hoped for without McGary.

    Come March, the aforementioned quartet of role players will likely determine how long Michigan's season lasts.

Derrick Walton Jr. Is a Star in the Making

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    For the majority of nonconference action, Derrick Walton Jr. looked completely out of place in big games. This should not come as a surprise, seeing as he is a true freshman in one of the most complex offensive schemes in all of college basketball. 

    In games against Iowa State, Duke, Arizona and Stanford, Walton averaged just 19.5 minutes, 6.5 points, 1.3 assists and 2.0 turnovers. 

    Now, compare that against his conference numbers, which show significant growth. Through eight Big Ten games, Walton is scoring 9.9 points, dishing out 2.8 assists and only committing 1.5 turnovers per contest. He is also shooting 58.5 percent overall and is 9-of-16 from deep in league play. 

    The last two games have been the most remarkable, though. In Michigan's victory over in-state rival Michigan State, Walton scored 19 points and went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe. All of those freebies were vital to the Wolverines' win at the Breslin Center. Thursday night against Purdue, Walton validated his performance with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

    Statistics aside, Walton no longer looks like he is in over his head. He has a much better understanding of the offense, is making quicker reads and is confident shooting the basketball.

    The future looks bright for Michigan at the point guard position with Walton running the show.

Hostile Environments Will Not Rattle These Wolverines

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    A tough slate of nonconference games helped Michigan remain composed on the road in Big Ten play.
    A tough slate of nonconference games helped Michigan remain composed on the road in Big Ten play.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Winning on the road is a must for any team hoping to walk away with a Big Ten title come season's end. Michigan has proven it has the grit and composure to steal big games away from the Crisler Center. The Wolverines won at Minnesota, dealt Nebraska its only home loss of the season, beat Wisconsin in its own house and came from behind to top Michigan State in East Lansing.

    No road environment, no matter how hostile, will rattle this Michigan team.

    It should go without saying, the Wolverines would not have been able to pull off those impressive victories without the experience they gained from traveling in nonconference play.

    Michigan went to Iowa State and Duke, and although it won neither of those games, simply playing in front of those raucous crowds is paying major dividends right now.

    Last season, the Wolverines were completely unprepared for their first marquee game. The only road contests Michigan played prior to its clash with nationally ranked Ohio State in Columbus were against Bradley and Northwestern.

    The Maize and Blue are reaping the rewards for upping the ante outside of Big Ten play this year.

    Playing at Iowa and Ohio State will not be easy, but do not expect anything less than a composed and confident group of Wolverines in those pivotal matchups.

John Beilein Is Battling Tom Izzo for National Coach of the Year

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    John Beilein is sure to get a long look for Coach of the Year honors.
    John Beilein is sure to get a long look for Coach of the Year honors.Tony Ding/Associated Press

    The debate for national Coach of the Year honors is beginning to take shape, and the two names that should be atop the list are none other than John Beilein and Tom Izzo. No coaches have lost more talent during the season, or over the offseason, and still managed to play at a championship level. 

    Beilein had preseason All-American Mitch McGary for just eight games. He lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft. Additionally, his two point guards are a true freshman and a former 1-star recruit. 

    The respective developments of Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert are all a tribute to the coaching job Beilein has done with this Michigan team. Stauskas went from being a shooter to an all-around player, while LeVert transformed from a lanky defensive specialist into the Wolverines' second-leading scorer in Big Ten play.

    Thanks to Beilein's offensive genius and ability to maximize talent, Michigan sits alone atop the conference standings at 8-0.

    On the other side of the conversation, Izzo has been without star center Adreian Payne for the last six games, and Branden Dawson is expected to be out for at least a month with a broken bone in his hand. All the while, Michigan State has pressed on and is 8-1 in Big Ten play. Its only loss came against Michigan.

    This is not an attempt to discredit what coaches like Sean Miller, Jim Boeheim or Bill Self have done. Those teams have been impressive, but they were expected to be great and have stayed healthy. Michigan and Michigan State have not, yet both have continued to win marquee games.

    Whichever coach comes away with the Big Ten title in March should also be recognized as the top coach in the country. 

Until Further Notice, Michigan Is the Big Ten Favorite

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    No one is playing better basketball in the Big Ten than Michigan right now.
    No one is playing better basketball in the Big Ten than Michigan right now.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    With road wins over then-No. 3 Wisconsin and then-No. 3 Michigan State already under its belt, no other team is more worthy of being labeled the Big Ten favorite other than Michigan.

    That being said, there is still a lot of basketball left to be played, and the Wolverines are once again entering a pivotal stretch of their season. Over the next month, Michigan will travel to Iowa and Ohio State. It will also face Wisconsin and Michigan State at home.

    The chase for the conference title is far from over, but it is clear the Wolverines are the cream of the crop right now. A healthy Michigan State team may have something to say about that, though, it is unclear whether or not that will happen.

    By the end of February, the nation will have a very clear picture of who will claim the Big Ten title. Until then, however, Michigan is the clear-cut favorite.