Michigan poised for another tourney run
March, 22, 2014
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
MILWAUKEE -- When the graphic of Michigan's 79-65 win against Texas flashed on the big screen in the Wolverines' locker room, Derrick Walton Jr. recoiled in amazement.
"Eight assists!" Walton told fellow guard Caris LeVert.
Nik Stauskas, who gained national recognition this season for what he does with the ball in his hands, propelled Michigan in the NCAA tournament because of what he did when he gave it up. His eight assists tied a career high.
"I know he can pass," Walton said. "I didn't know he had that many."
Stauskas' precision passing adds to Michigan's arsenal. So does Jordan Morgan's relentless post play against the Texas big men he heard would dominate him. So does the poise displayed by Walton and LeVert, a freshman and a sophomore who combined for 22 points, five assists and, most important, zero turnovers against the Longhorns. So does Glenn Robinson III's willingness to take control, as he did with a five-point burst after the Longhorns had closed to within six points with eight minutes to play.
This is a different Michigan team, one with different stars and strengths from the one that played Louisville for the 2013 national title. But it's a Wolverines team that could be headed for the same destination as its predecessor.
"We really want to make another run," LeVert said. "We're playing really good basketball."
Assistant coach Bacari Alexander printed out an image of a brain and showed it to players before Saturday's game. For all the talk of Texas' brawn -- especially 6-foot-9, 285-pound center Cameron Ridley -- Michigan's coaches emphasized winning the game from the neck up. The response: no fouls in the first 15:48 and only four turnovers. Although Texas grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, it shot just 37.1 percent.
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsNik Stauskas hit 4 of 9 3-point attempts while dishing out 8 assists in Michigan's win over Texas.
Wolverines players said they focused almost solely on defense before the game. They then proceeded to put on an offense extravaganza in the first half: 53.6 percent shooting, 10 assists on 15 field goals, eight 3-pointers and a points-per-possession average worth framing (1.483).
"We expect our guys to make shots," assistant coach LaVall Jordan said. "Coach [John] Beilein does a great job putting them in position. They're confident kids, we try to keep them confident. I don't know if we're ever surprised.
"That's their job, to make plays for each other."
No player made more than Stauskas, who, after sinking three quick 3-pointers, fed Morgan for a dunk and Robinson for a thunderous alley-oop.
"When he's passing the ball, we're a dangerous team," LeVert said.
The same holds true when Morgan is doing damage down low. He's not Mitch McGary, who spurred Michigan's Final Four run last year, but he's making it easier to forget what the Wolverines are missing for this year's tournament charge.
The fifth-year senior recorded his second double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) in as many tournament games and helped limit Ridley to six points.
"Everybody was like, 'He's only 6-8, 240. How's he gonna hold his own in there?'" Morgan said. "I ain't got a lot of body fat on me. I'm not about to just roll over. That's the fun part, showing everybody's wrong."
Added Alexander: "It was extremely personal."
Michigan's young backcourt also silenced skepticism with its play in a tournament that belongs to the guards. How the Wolverines would replace Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. was the looming question entering the season.
LeVert and Walton displayed the right mix of aggression and poise, even after Texas switched to a matchup zone in the second half that slowed Michigan's scoring pace.
"Extremely proud of them," Jordan said. "They embrace the responsibility, and they want more."
Michigan wants another trip to the Final Four. Beilein, who recorded his 700th coaching win Saturday, wants 704 by the time the season ends.
The next trip takes the Wolverines to familiar surroundings in Indiana, where six players, including Robinson and Spike Albrecht, call home.
"Our goal," Walton said, "is to win it all."