Six months removed from last season's Final Four appearance, Michigan started the season with a top ten ranking. Some questioned whether such a lofty ranking was warranted, given that Michigan lost not only Trey Burke, but also Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA. The way Michigan started the season, you would have thought that the Wolverines were intent on proving their critics right. Michigan suffered early season losses to unranked Iowa State and Charlotte and then fell to Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. After a heart-breaking loss to top-ranked Arizona, a game it led most of the way, Michigan entered Big Ten play with a less-than-stellar record of 8-4. Suddenly, rather than looking like a team hoping to repeat its tournament run of a year ago, Michigan looked more like a team destined to spend the season on the NCAA tournament bubble.
However, after Saturday's victory over Wisconsin in Madison, a venue at which it hadn't won in nearly 15 years, Michigan found itself with a 5-0 conference record, with three of those wins coming on the road, a place John Beilein's Wolverines have always struggled. This doesn't suddenly make the Wolverines conference favorites, nor does it suggest that they have solved all of their problems. Like last season, Michigan still struggles against big, physical opponents and has difficulty rebounding against nearly everyone. But Michigan is playing better and is getting contributions from some surprising sources.
Last year, with Burke running the offense, Nik Stauskas's primary role was that of a spot-up shooter, scoring the majority of his points when Burke found him floating around the perimeter or trailing on the break. This was never more evident than in last year's NCAA Regional Final against Florida, when Stauskas scored a game-high 22 points, shooting a perfect six-for-six from beyond the arc. But with Burke no longer distributing, many wondered whether Stauskas would be as effective. And no longer the third (or fourth or fifth) option, could Stauskas perform with the added pressure he'd face as one of the Wolverines' primary scorers?
It didn't take long for Stauskas to answer these questions. He earned MVP honors in November's Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament and hasn't slowed down. Stauskas has been one of the Big Ten's best players this season, averaging 18.0 points a game on 49% shooting (44% from beyond the arc). It's not that Stauskas is shooting better, but rather that he is doing everything else better. Primarily, he's getting to the basket and creating his own shots, something he did little of last year. Lack of confidence has never been an issue, but Stauskas seems to be playing with even more confidence this season. He has not only assumed control of the offense, but has also inherited Burke's role taking the big shot, which was the case in Madison, when his step-back three with less than a minute remaining essentially put the game out of reach.
Stauskas isn't the only one who's elevated his game, though. Caris LeVert has upped his scoring average almost ten points to 12.0 points a game, providing Michigan with a third scoring option, behind Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. While still raw, LeVert has shown the ability to be an explosive scorer. Despite losing by only ten points, Michigan never really challenged Duke. Other than LeVert, that is. With Stauskas blanketed by Duke defenders (and nursing a sprained ankle), LeVert often seemed to be the only Wolverine capable of competing with the Blue Devils, and at times, it seemed Michigan's only offense was to give LeVert the ball and let him create something. More often than not, that strategy worked, as LeVert responded with 20 second-half points.
But the most important - and most surprising - development is the contribution Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan are making. Horford, especially, has increased the level of his play, doubling his point and rebound averages from a year ago. While not making anyone forget about injured Mitch McGary, Horford and Morgan are contributing more than most thought possible. Together, they are averaging 12.0 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, while logging a combined 29 minutes a game. Michigan still has trouble on the glass, but Horford and Morgan provide an important inside presence and have improved as the season has progressed. Against Wisconsin, they combined for 12 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes. For Michigan to continue to have success, Horford and Morgan will have to continue their strong play.
The road before Michigan is more difficult than the one behind it. Its schedule is back-loaded and the Wolverines have a number of tough games awaiting them over the next few weeks, beginning tonight against Iowa. But they are playing as well as they have all season, and if Stauskas and LeVert continue their strong play, and even more importantly, if Horford and Morgan continue to provide a credible inside presence, Michigan could not only find itself in the NCAA tournament, but could also make a deeper run than many initially thought possible.