After breezing through its non-conference schedule and opening conference play with three victories, each by at least 15 points, Michigan was riding high. Through 16 games the Wolverines were undefeated and ranked second in the nation. Then came their first loss at Ohio State Sunday. Was that loss simply one of the perils of playing on the road in the toughest conference in the country? Or did it prove that Michigan isn't as good as its fast start and lofty ranking would indicate? Or, more simply put, how good is Michigan?
The answer, despite the rough day in Columbus, is very good. Indiana is still the team to beat in the Big Ten and Michigan State, Ohio State and even Minnesota will be likely heard from, but Michigan is in the mix at the top of the conference. In fact, Michigan should not only contend for the Big Ten Championship this season, but unlike previous Michigan teams, this team is positioned to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Yes, Michigan earned a share of the regular season conference championship last year, but it also bowed out of the Big Ten tourney early and the NCAA tourney even earlier, the victim of a first round upset to Ohio. This team, however, is different.
As soon as Trey Burke announced that he was returning for his sophomore season, Michigan started appearing near the top of some of the earliest pre-season polls. And that's no coincidence, as Michigan wouldn't be where it is without Burke. The sophomore point guard is the Wolverines' most important player and their biggest difference maker. If he's not the best point guard in the country, he's certainly in that conversation. A member of the freshman All-American team last year, Burke is playing at an even higher level this year, increasing his scoring from 14.8 to 18.0 points per game and his assists from 4.8 to 7.1 per game, all while playing fewer minutes. He's also increased his assist-to-turnover ratio to 4:1 and is hitting more than 50% of his shots from the field. A good player last season, Burke has developed into a great player this season.
In addition to Burke, Michigan also returns starters Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan. But the reason that this year's team is different from past Michigan teams is not because of the development of Burke or a more seasoned core of upper classmen, but rather because of Michigan's freshmen class, a class that gives the Wolverines something they haven't had in years - not simply depth, but difference makers on both ends of the floor.
For years it seems, Michigan fans have been hearing about sharp-shooting recruits, only to have them arrive on campus and not be able to consistently hit their shots or otherwise make an impact. Nik Stauskas came to Ann Arbor with similar press clippings. Unlike many before him, however, Stauskas delivers on this promise. You don't need to know that he's currently in the nation's top ten in three point shooting or have seen the YouTube clip in which he makes 45 of 50 threes in a backyard shooting session to understand why he's different, you just need to watch him play. Stauskas not only has great form and a quick release, but he also displays a confidence bordering on cockiness, a trait many great shooters possess. When the ball finds its way to him, you expect the shot to fall. And with Stauskas shooting better than 50% from beyond the arc, that happens more often than not.
Fellow freshman Mitch McGary also brings a dimension long missing in Ann Arbor. While he may be a work in progress as a post player, the 6' 10" McGary brings more than just size, he brings an athletic, energetic presence to the Wolverines. McGary provides more than just critical backup minutes for starting center Jordan Morgan, who was essentially the Wolverines' only big man the past two seasons, he provides an offensive rebounding and shot blocking presence that Michigan has sorely lacked in recent years.
But as good as Stauskas and McGary are, the jewel of the freshman class is Glenn Robinson III. In fact, he's more than just the jewel of the class, with apologies to Burke and Hardaway, he may be the Wolverines' most talented player. Flying under the radar a bit, Robinson is nonetheless a key to Michigan's success this season. A silky smooth forward with a nice jumper and solid mid-range game, Robinson is also strong enough to handle himself in the paint. And while he seems comfortable allowing Burke, Hardaway and even Stauskas to shoulder the majority of the offensive load, Robinson is a tremendously skilled offensive player, and can step up his scoring when necessary, as he did earlier this year against Iowa, when he tallied a game high 20 points.
Last season, if Burke and Hardaway struggled, Michigan had trouble finding other offense, and as a result, often endured prolonged scoreless stretches. And even though Michigan went through such a stretch in the first half against Ohio State, one that ultimately proved too damaging to overcome, that shouldn't be the case as often this year, particularly as the freshmen gain experience. Robinson and Stauskas struggled against the Buckeyes, but with apologies to Northwestern and Welsh-Ryan Arena, that was their first time playing against a good team in a hostile environment. They should learn from Sunday's experience. And for Michigan to excel, they'll have to. Because the degree to which Michigan's freshmen are able to perform against top teams will go a long way in determining how successful Michigan will be.
Michigan is far from perfect. They lack overall size and will struggle against physical teams. But Sunday's loss shouldn't be seen as an indication that Michigan is vastly overrated. After all, Michigan did show poise coming back from a 21-point deficit to tie the game late in the second half. And despite its struggles Sunday, with this freshman class to compliment its upperclassmen, Michigan is deeper and more athletic than it's been in years, and finally has the talent to compete not only for the Big Ten championship, but to play deep into March.