College Basketball Nation: Jordan Morgan

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee made a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 after beginning its journey beginning in the First Four. The Volunteers topped Iowa, UMass and Mercer to reach the Sweet 16, but Michigan was just too much in a 73-71 victory on Friday night.

Here are five observations from that Sweet 16 game:

What a comeback: The Vols didn’t give up. With 4:10 to play, they were down 67-60 after being down by as many as 15 points. They were down just 70-64 with 2:21 to go. Tennessee continued to attack the floor and get to the rim. With less than two minutes to play, Tennessee and Michigan were separated by only five points. The Vols continued to whittle away, drawing within three with 23 seconds left and moving to within one when Jordan McRae scored with 10.8 seconds left. Caris LeVert then stepped out of bounds with 9.6 seconds to play, making things real at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tennessee, despite struggling from 3-point range, was in position to win. But Jarnell Stokes drew a late charge against Jordan Morgan with six seconds left that essentially ended the game for the Vols despite a great comeback effort.

Michigan nearly flawless in first half: In some of the great upsets in past NCAA tournaments, the underdogs succeeded because they got off to fast starts. That didn’t happen with Tennessee. The Vols needed an impressive 11-3 run after going down 15-7 early. But the first half from there was all Michigan. The Wolverines dissected the Vols from that point forward. Cuonzo Martin’s squad couldn’t handle John Beilein’s collection of 6-foot-6-ish wings -- is there a factory in Ann Arbor, Mich., that we don’t know about? -- who just kept punishing Tennessee inside and outside. Michigan went 7-for-9 from the 3-point line, a 78 percent clip. This isn’t some Tennessee team that got lucky on its way to the Sweet 16. The Vols had defeated its three previous opponents in the NCAA tournament by nearly 20 points per game. But the Wolverines were just too much. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-for-30 from the 3-point line in the first halves of its NCAA tourney games. The Wolverines don't wait. They just go.

LeVert … the future: Nik Stauskas (14 points) has no reason to stay in school beyond this season. That much was clear in Friday’s game. He’s a big guard with range and solid ballhandling ability. Glenn Robinson III (13 points) could leave, too, but the program will still be in good hands if LeVert (10 points) returns. The 6-6 sophomore has made dramatic improvements this season. He’s been a 41 percent shooter from the 3-point line, but the most impressive element of his game on Friday, something I didn’t see until I watched him live, was his quick first step and ability to create his own shot. He is thin, and a summer in the weight room would really enhance his game, but he’s a special talent who might be the next Michigan superstar. His late error doesn't define his season or his potential.

Size doesn’t always help: When Tennessee walked to the podium for its pregame media session on Thursday, it looked like a college football team. Jeronne Maymon and Stokes are large individuals, with size that Michigan lacks, and, on paper, that appeared to be a potential issue for the Wolverines. How would they deal with a team that had big wings and strong post players such as Stokes and Maymon? Well, that wasn’t the real question. The real question became, "How can Tennessee stay in front of the Wolverines?" It couldn’t in the first half. Martin had Maymon on Robinson early, which didn’t last long, as Robinson kept beating Maymon off the dribble. He had to insert Derek Reese, a 6-8 wing, to guard him. Early in the game, Tennessee wasn’t even using Stokes and Maymon together. Maymon’s early foul trouble might have contributed to that, but the Vols were better with the one-big system. That’s how you know Michigan is a really good team, as Tennessee had to adjust its entire scheme in the first five minutes to deal with it. But the one-big system also helped the Vols climb back into the game.

Beilein deserves credit for developing players: Yes, Beilein doesn’t exactly draw kids from the prep market’s scrap heap, but he’s also not signing a bunch of one-and-dones, either. Look at Stauskas, Robinson and LeVert, along with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Check out the game that Morgan (15 points, seven rebounds) had. They’ve all developed at a respectable pace. Stauskas will be a millionaire lottery pick if he decides to turn pro. Robinson could be a first-round pick, too. LeVert could be a top-15 selection in 2015 if he doesn’t leave this year. Walton looks comfortable. Irvin is next. And we haven't even mentioned Mitch McGary, who was the team's top pro prospect entering the season before a back injury ended his year. He was just a solid freshman, but by the end of last year's tourney, he was a lottery pick. Sure, the Wolverines can shoot, but the perennial progression of Beilein’s rosters is worth noting. His players have made some tremendous strides.

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."

[+] EnlargeNik Stauskas
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsNik Stauskas hit 4 of 9 3-point attempts while dishing out 8 assists in Michigan's win over Texas.
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.

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."

INDIANAPOLIS -- Football is supposed to be the game of inches, where the nose of a football can determine a winner or a loser.

Basketball, it turns out, can be just as exactingly sweet or cruel, depending on your rooting interest.

Jordan Morgan laid in a shot on a feed from Nik Stauskas, the ball hanging on the rim for a split second before falling in.

Tracy Abrams pulled up for a wide-open jumper, the ball kissing the front of the rim and bouncing off.

Michigan 64, its chance at a Big Ten tournament title and maybe a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament still alive.

Illinois 63, its dreams for a Cinderella run here cut short, its hopes now focused on an NIT bid to extend the season.

[+] EnlargeJordan Morgan
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSenior Jordan Morgan's game winner sent Michigan to the Big Ten semifinals.
“We got some good bounces around the rim," John Beilein said, using a throwaway quote straight out of the coaches’ cliché handbook that actually made sense here.

Because this game, as much as it was about finesse, execution and some seriously good coaching from both benches, wound up coming down to luck and guessing, or at least educated guessing.

The Wolverines got luckier and Beilein guessed better.

“There’s a lot of things that you can second-guess after the fact," John Groce said. “You can go back, 'I wish I would have done this' or 'I wish I would have done that.' But decisions that are made throughout the course of the game are discussed and they’re educated decisions. Most of the times those work, and to be honest with you, occasionally they don’t."

Ten days ago, the Illini and Wolverines met in Champaign, Ill. Michigan drained 16 3-pointers and won in a rout. So naturally, Groce decided, as the Wolverines threatened to pull away, to go with a zone.

Say what?

Of course it worked, taking the Wolverines out of their rhythm enough to get the Illini, once down by as many as 13 in the second half, back in the game.

But when the game hit the critical mass point, with the Illini up one and just 19 ticks left, Groce went back to his comfort zone and called man to man.

“Hindsight is always 20-20 on decisions like that," Groce said. “Now that I know that Morgan scored that basket, as it looked like it was going to roll off the rim, I would have liked to have gone zone."

Beilein, MacGyver with a whiteboard, able to X-and-O his way out of any problem, countered with a play that naturally could work against either defense.

He put the ball in Stauskas’ hands, and when the Big Ten Player of the Year rose up just inside the free throw line, he attracted two defenders to him. Instead of shooting, which you might say is Stauskas’ calling card, he dropped it down to Morgan.

“J-Mo rolled down the lane and he was wide open," Stauskas said.

The pass still caught Morgan off guard. He said Stauskas told him coming out of the timeout he was going to shoot it regardless, so when the ball started coming his way, he was a little bit unprepared.

In the moment, at least, he was unprepared. In reality, Morgan was wildly ready. A few years ago, Beilein swiped a drill he saw another NCAA tournament team using. Essentially he has his bigs run to the rim with their heads turned, assistant coaches hitting them with bags as they work.

“It’s a lot of action, a screen-and-roll play, but you don’t know what’s happening," Beilein said. “You’ve got to be able to catch it here, catch it there, catch it with balance and put it in. At least 2,000 times in five years, Jordan Morgan has run that same drill. ... He said he wanted to add a little drama to the game, so he decided to put it up on the rim."

A little drama, and maybe just a kiss of luck, too.

Michigan will be just fine, thanks

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12

The Michigan Wolverines spent their January being more or less unstoppable. From Dec. 21 on, including two nonconference wins against Stanford and Holy Cross and the first eight games of its Big Ten schedule, Michigan went 10-0 in high style. Nik Stauskas emerged as a dual-threat scorer and made a ridiculous percentage of his shots; the Wolverines’ offense pummeled all comers into submission. When they beat Michigan State on the road, and Stauskas waved a kiss to the Izzone on his way out the door, the message was clear: Mitch McGary or no, the Big Ten title chase was headquartered in Ann Arbor.

Then, on Feb. 2, Indiana did something no team since Duke had managed to do: It stopped Stauskas. And it beat Michigan, which had last lost to then-No. 1 Arizona.

On Saturday, when Iowa stomped a lifeless, disengaged version of the Wolverines in Iowa City -- the final score was 86-67, and even that might have been deceptively close -- the warning sirens went full blast. All of a sudden, Michigan looked beatable, vulnerable, even -- gasp -- on the verge of collapse.

After Tuesday night, it’s time to make another grand pronouncement about the Wolverines. Are you ready? Here it goes.

Never mind.

Michigan’s 70-60 win at Ohio State on Tuesday night should, at least for the moment, quell any doubts about whether the Wolverines have the fortitude to hold on to the Big Ten pole position they share with Michigan State. The Wolverines’ first win at OSU in the Thad Matta era was a genuinely impressive victory -- a blend of great offensive execution and good-enough defense on the road against a team seemingly designed to prevent exactly that.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Walton
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesFreshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. gutted out 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Michigan's victory over Ohio State on Tuesday.
When Indiana beat Michigan, it did so by hassling Stauskas with the smaller, quicker Yogi Ferrell. On Saturday, Iowa followed Tom Crean’s counterintuitive lead. It appeared the Big Ten hive had figured out a way to stop one of the most potent offensive players in the country, and now Michigan would have to go on the road to face to an Ohio State group with not one but two of the nation’s best perimeter defenders, Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott.

What ensued was a classic John Beilein chess match abound with beautiful offensive wrinkles. The Wolverines worked Stauskas off screen after screen, changing directions and using OSU’s aggressiveness against it. Stauskas finished with 15 points on nine shots, and there were a handful of possessions that should be immediately become mandatory inclusions in coaching seminars.

But Michigan’s performance was much more than Stauskas. That might have been the most encouraging thing about it: Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t shoot well, but he still scored 13 points and added 10 rebounds and six assists. Zak Irvin made two key 3-pointers off the bench. The Wolverines’ big men, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, combined to go 7-of-9 from the field for 14 points and 12 rebounds. Beilein’s team was just judicious enough offensively -- it made 8 of its 17 3s -- to tough out a road victory in which it shot just 41.5 percent overall.

Ohio State’s poor shooting helped, of course. The Buckeyes made just 3-of-20 from 3, and that was the biggest difference in the game. But Michigan also rebounded 42.4 percent of its own misses and 75.8 percent of OSU’s. The Wolverines’ ability to find and can open looks from the outside stemmed both from Beilein’s clever push-pull sets and from post-offensive rebound scrambles. Michigan scored 1.20 points per possession against a good defensive team as a result.

In the process, they avoided falling back to the middle of the Big Ten pack. That’s a tough place to be, a place where Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are scrapping like crazy to stay within striking distance of the title chase -- a place where a .500 record in a deep and difficult conference is a legitimate concern. Instead, Michigan is out to 10-2. On the next two Sundays, it hosts both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Those games aren’t easy wins no matter where they take place, but they effectively end the Wolverines’ top-half responsibilities -- and might just end the Big Ten race once and for all.

Of course there are no guarantees. But the Wolverines’ ability to win on the road in a variety of ways remains very much intact. Saturday’s disaster against Iowa looks more like an outlier than a sign of things to come. Never mind all that. Michigan should be just fine.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before Michigan could even soak in the joys of silencing an opponent’s crowd -- hearing how a rival’s arena goes from a roar to a hush because of what they had done -- the criticism had snuck into most Michigan players’ thoughts.

For so many -- they know -- there will be an asterisk next to the Wolverines’ 80-75 win over Michigan State on Saturday.

Yes, Michigan State was short-handed. Adreian Payne is out with a foot injury and Branden Dawson broke his hand Thursday during a film session (which MSU coach Tom Izzo actually complimented, saying “it’s good to see some passion for basketball.”).

Those two players are important for Michigan State’s success and the Spartans didn’t have them. That is a fact. But basketball is a game with changing elements and coaches play the hands they are dealt.

So don’t let that take everything away from this Wolverines team. Don’t let that completely discount a victory because the Breslin Center is at least a sixth man, maybe even a seventh man on a night like Saturday when Michigan comes to town.

And don’t let that take away from freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. coming into his own on an opponent’s court or Nik Stauskas hitting five 3-pointers with hands in his face. Don’t let that take away from the fact that the Wolverines played their way back into this game, then hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final two minutes.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Walton Jr.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFreshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. came of age against No. 3 Michigan State, pouring in 19 critical points in No. 21 Michigan's victory.
The Spartans’ injuries don’t negate an impressive win, the Wolverines’ third top-10 win just in eight days. Don’t take anything away from Michigan because Izzo isn’t and won’t.

“Don’t take anything away from them,” Izzo said. “They made some shots. They made some plays. We had our chance.”

That charge was led mainly by sophomore guard Gary Harris, who led all scorers with a career-high 27 points on just nine field goals. Senior point guard Keith Appling recorded a double-double (10 points and 10 assists) to just one turnover.

So the Spartans certainly did have a chance, Harris and Appling made sure of that. And Breslin was there to back them up, to get into the heads of a team that has had 89 percent of its scoring this season come from freshmen and sophomores. Certainly, those are the players that a crowd can get to.

“I’ve never heard a crowd that loud,” Walton said. “Iowa State and Duke really wasn’t that loud. Coming out of that locker room here, hearing 18,000 kids jumping up and down, that was a crazy feeling.”

And while the Wolverines might’ve jumped out to an early lead, hitting their first four shots, it was the Spartans who played the more composed first half. They led 36-30 at halftime and, even without Payne, they allowed just six points in the paint.

That would end up being one of the stat lines the Spartans dominated, scoring 30 points in the paint to Michigan’s 16.

But the Wolverines were better elsewhere. They hit 11 3-pointers. Their top three scorers combined to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor and 77 percent from 3-point range. They rebounded 39 percent of their misses. They shot 83 percent from the charity stripe. They scored 15 second-chance points, the most given up by the Spartans defense this season.

That’s where Appling and Harris and Breslin couldn’t counter enough.

“I’m kind of glad I don’t have to come back here,” fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan joked after the game.

Off all people, Morgan can talk to the Spartans about stepping up in the midst of injury. He and Jon Horford stepped into the minutes left behind by preseason All-American Mitch McGary when he had back surgery a few weeks ago.

Those two combined for eight rebounds and 10 points in 36 minutes of play.

By the time Morgan was reflecting on his previous games in the Breslin Center it was already empty -- that exodus had begun with a minute left in the game when the momentum had swung heavily to Michigan. He could appreciate the silence then, especially because he knows how rare it is to come by on the road.

In his five years at Michigan the Wolverines have never been better than .500 on the road in a single season. Right now Michigan is 4-2.

“That’s the best part,” Morgan said. “They try to get all in to your head but at the end of the day, you just kind of keep moving and don’t let it affect you. … When we went on our run it got pretty quiet in there.”

And like a veteran team, Michigan put a run on the Spartans. After the last eight days John Beilein’s group has had it’ll certainly see a significant boost in the rankings, and perhaps Izzo’s group will drop sans its two starters.

But those don’t really matter because in a rivalry game statistics and records are thrown out, leaving it to the bitterness to play itself out. And on Saturday, the Wolverines walked away the victors.

The Spartans visit the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Feb. 23 and they’ll then have a chance to silence the Michigan crowd. But for now, let Michigan savor this victory without an asterisk.

“It’s fair to say that we don’t like each other very much,” Stauskas said. “So it makes it a lot of fun to come here on the road and make these fans quiet up.”

Offense plagues Orange in loss

April, 7, 2013
ATLANTA -- It’s a moment, Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said, that might haunt him: looking for teammate James Southerland with 19.2 seconds left in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament, finding him covered, opting to drive to the basket for a potentially game-tying layup instead ...

Only to be called for an offensive foul.

"That’s a moment you dream about -- those final seconds, the ball in your hands, trying to make the best play for your team," he said after Syracuse lost to Michigan 61-56 on Saturday. " ... We just needed another bucket."

That pretty much summed up Syracuse’s night.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Triche, Jordan Morgan
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThis play, on which Brandon Triche was called for a charge against Jordan Morgan, "could have gone either way," Triche said.
For all the pregame talk of the Orange’s ferocious, suffocating, octopus-like 2-3 zone defense -- and whether Michigan could slice through and shoot over it -- it was Syracuse’s offense that failed it in the end.

Although forward C.J. Fair scored a game-high 22 points on 9-for-20 shooting, teammates Southerland (2-for-9) and Michael Carter-Williams (1-for-6), usually double-digit scorers, combined for seven points and made only 3 of their 15 shots.

"They started out strong, and we never really got anything going," Southerland said.

Syracuse shot 41.8 percent for the game -- including 3-for-14 on 3-pointers.

"I think they’re a good defensive team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the Wolverines. "We have shot the ball well from 3 this year. We’re shooting about 20 percent from 3, in our nine losses. It hasn’t been something that we’ve been really good on. We try not to take a lot of 3s. But we had good looks. I mean, they were all good looks."

Southerland, who didn’t score his first field goal until the final two minutes of the game (on a dunk that cut Michigan’s lead to four), had a very good look with 41 seconds left, when he buried a 3 to cut a once-11-point deficit to 57-56.

But after Michigan’s Trey Burke made only one of two free throws, Jordan Morgan stepped in front of Triche to draw the charge, which Triche said "could have gone either way."

"I probably should have made a better decision," he said. "Probably should have pulled up ... for a jump shot instead of actually taking it all the way down there, because I did see him."

Although who’s to say, in this game, that a jumper would have gone in for Syracuse, either?

"It was tough because offensively, we never could get anything going," Triche said. "We couldn’t get multiple made shots in a row. We’d make one, and we probably didn’t make another shot for two minutes or something.

"We didn’t have much momentum offensively. Defensively, we started to pick it up, chip away, and that’s what we did -- we chipped away all the way to the last second of the game."

After the charge call, Jon Horford hit one of two free throws to push the Wolverines up by three. But with nine seconds left -- and with a chance to tie it -- Syracuse reserve Trevor Cooney took and missed a bad 2-point shot that ultimately resulted in a dunk for Morgan and Michigan on the other end.

In a game that saw Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone hold the Wolverines to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half, it was a frustrating way to finish the game. And the season.

And the dream of winning a national title.

"Final Four, down two points, the opportunity to tie the game or take the lead -- but get a charge," said Triche, a senior. "That’s what I’ll probably remember the most."

ATLANTA -- Michigan hasn’t been to the NCAA title game in two decades. And Saturday, it didn’t allow a 2-3 zone -- no matter how lengthy or athletic or frustrating -- to keep it from returning.

Led by Tim Hardaway Jr., Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III -- and helped by the fact that Syracuse’s James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams, who average double digits, combined for only seven points -- the Wolverines survived a last-minute push from their fellow fourth seed to win 61-56 in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament and advance.

A quick look at the game:

Turning point: Trailing 17-15 with 10:14 left in the first half, Michigan outscored Syracuse 21-8 before halftime, shooting over Syracuse’s defense (including two 3-pointers from freshman Spike Albrecht and a loooong one from Trey Burke) when it wasn’t beating it down the floor. The Wolverines led 36-25 at halftime -- and 43-32 with 15:08 left, before the Orange painstakingly patched together a 13-5 comeback that cut their deficit to 48-45 with 7:41 left.

But it didn’t get interesting again until the final minutes, when Southerland -- scoreless to that point -- dunked with 1:58 remaining to cut his team’s deficit to four and then hit a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left to cut it to 57-56.

Michigan’s Burke and Jon Horford bookended a Brandon Triche offensive foul with a free throw apiece. And after Trevor Cooney missed for Syracuse (30-10), Jordan Morgan sealed it with a breakaway dunk for Michigan.

Key player: McGary finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high six assists.

Key stat: Southerland and Carter-Williams -- who had been averaging 10 and 13 points, respectively, during the NCAA tournament -- were a combined 3-for-15 from the field.

Up next: Michigan (31-7) advances to play top-seeded Louisville in Monday night’s championship game. The Wolverines last reached the title game in 1993 (although that season record was vacated because of NCAA sanctions).

Digging In: Michigan Wolverines

April, 4, 2013
"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Next: Michigan.

Is Michigan's offense enough to win them a national title?

That was the question we asked about the Wolverines in the preseason, and the nonconference season, and throughout January, February and March: Could a hyperefficient offense led by the nation's best point guard do enough on one end of the floor to make up for the flaws on the other? Don't you need to specialize in stops to progress in the NCAA tournament? Weren't the Wolverines too lenient on the defensive boards to be considered a legitimate national title contender?

Originally, I thought asking that question one final time would be a clever way to open this post -- convenient bookends, the writer's best friend -- but it would have been pointless, because we already know the answer. Yes! Yes, the Wolverines can win the national title; when you survive Kansas and trounce Florida in the matter of a weekend, and when you are a mere two wins away from "One Shining Moment," and when you have Trey Burke and a suddenly dominant Mitch McGary anchoring an offensive attack with weapons at every position, yes, you can win the national title. Obviously.

Of course, can does not automatically sum to will. There is the small matter of solving a team -- Syracuse -- that is allowing just 0.72 points per possession in its four NCAA tournament games, to say nothing of whatever challenge may be waiting in Monday's national title game. The first item of business is making sure that No. 1-ranked efficiency offense can maintain its torrid pace against the tournament's hottest and most imposing defense to date.

To figure out how that might be possible -- and how an opposing coaching staff works to prevent it from happening -- I asked Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals to help me scout the Wolverines in advance of the most intriguing matchup of the Final Four. Let's take a look.

When Michigan has the ball

1. Stop transition. Wait … really? A sidelong glance at Michigan's efficiency and tempo statistics wouldn't give you the impression the Wolverines love to get out and run -- Michigan's 65.3 possessions per game ranked No. 200 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted-tempo rankings this season. That's not Wisconsin-level deliberation, but it's not exactly seven seconds or less, either. But ask Boals what most concerned him about Michigan's offense when he and the rest of Thad Matta's staff prepared for the Wolverines this season, and he doesn't even hesitate: "It's funny -- they're a slow-paced team overall but the place they hurt you most is transition," Boals said. "That's where Glenn Robinson is really good, that's where Tim Hardaway's really good, and obviously it starts with Trey. Then you've got [Nik] Stauskas running to the 3-point line. It's kind of oxymoronic, because they're not a fast-paced team, but the biggest thing you have to take away is transition points. You just can't let them have any easy ones." According to Synergy data, the Wolverines scored 1.208 points per trip on their 472 transition possessions this season, and they get into the break more -- on 17.2 percent of their total possessions -- than you might think.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTrey Burke pilots an offense based off ball screens; Syracuse's zone takes a lot of that away.
So … how do you stop Michigan in transition? "The No. 1 thing is you have to stop the ball," Boals said. "Trey does a great job of probing you and finding gaps. Then you have to identify the 3-point line, get to the shooters, and force guys to put it on the floor." This is especially true of Hardaway. The shooting guard is excellent on catch-and-shoots (1.227 PPP), but his efficiency drops precipitously once he is forced to put the ball on the floor. Once Hardaway takes a dribble, his points per trip drop to just 0.711. Fly by on closeouts if that's what it takes, but make Hardaway do more than stand with his finger in the wind on the perimeter -- especially in the open floor.

2. Slow the two-man game. Typically, this is almost impossible: Burke is simply too good playing off ball screens at the top of the key that no matter how a defense decides to play those ball screens -- whether defenders hang close to second-option perimeter shooters, or sink, or hedge hard, or you name it -- as Boals said, "you're going to give something up." In a sport in which approximately 150 percent of all offense runs through ball screens, Burke is the best of them all -- a do-everything nightmare happy to shoot, pass and penetrate with no discernible preference for any of the three.

But Syracuse won't be as worried as most. After all, while teams do screen the top of the Orange's 2-3 zone, the classic pick-and-roll/pop action is pretty much a non-starter. To get a similar pick-your-poison advantage against the zone, Boals said the Wolverines would have to make plays out of the middle of the zone, which is easier said than done. "I think they'll probably try and put Hardaway in there, because you have to have a playmaker at that high-post spot -- that's why I was surprised Indiana had [Cody] Zeller in that role as opposed to near the basket," Boals said. "If you do set a ball screen, they try to funnel it to the free throw line, so it's hard to get much out of it." This is an issue for the Wolverines, as 14.9 percent of their possessions this season ended with a shot by the ball handler (usually Burke) on a pick-and-roll action. If that entire dynamic is lost against a lanky 2-3 zone that doesn't have to decide how to defend constant ball screens, can Burke still be Burke?

Oh, and speaking of which, can McGary still be McGary? The freshman forward has emerged as an absolute stud in the wake of Jordan Morgan's ankle injury; in four tournament games he is 33-of-45 with 46 rebounds. McGary is a beast on the offensive glass, which is always good news against a zone, but will the lack of a two-man game hurt his ability to catch in good spots? And how will he fare against a Syracuse interior that blocks 19.4 percent of its opponents' shots, highest in the nation?

3. Challenge all 3s, but especially in the corner. And now we arrive at what is almost certainly the most important aspect of Saturday's game: Whether Michigan makes 3s.

The Wolverines' most frequent shot type is the jumper, which they use on over 53.4 percent of their possessions, and of those 944 jumpers in Synergy's database, 631 -- or 66.8 percent -- have come from beyond the arc. They've scored 1.138 points per possession. The Wolverines don't shoot as many 3s as they have in recent years past (when their talent required a quirkier, less-conventional approach), but the shot is still a major facet of their offense. It also just so happens to be the one most likely to exploit Syracuse's zone -- at least theoretically.

On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn published a chart of 3-point specialist Stauskas's perimeter-shooting habits during Big Ten and NCAA tournament play, and the pattern was clear: Stauskas feasts on left-corner 3s, on which he shot 23-of-42 in those 24 games. The freshman guard's specific proclivities are just one (important) piece of the larger puzzle, in which Michigan is happy to do exactly what the Syracuse zone wants: shoot 3s.

"If you actually look further at their shooting numbers, they shoot it the best from the corner," Boals said. Usually, a 2-3 zone is vulnerable there, but Syracuse has held opponents to just 14-of-92 from beyond the arc (!) in the tournament, just 5-of-26 from the corner (per Winn's chart), and just 28.2 percent overall on the season. "I'll be interested to see how many uncontested 3s they can get out of the half court," Boals said. "Typically if you overload it and get the ball to the wing and the corner, you're going to get a good look. But can you get it to the corner? With [Syracuse's] length and athleticism and how wide they are? That's the question."

On its face, this looks like pretty simple stuff. Everyone knows you have to make outside shots against a 2-3 zone! Michigan is a good shooting team! All the Wolverines have to do is make shots! Simple, right? Actually, no, because Syracuse is basically not even letting fans sitting on the opposite baseline look at the rim these days, and when a zone can do that, the entire classic anti-2-3 strategy gets very thorny.

[+] EnlargeNik Stauskas
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsNik Stauskas feasts on corner 3-pointers, a shot Syracuse has been particularly good at defending.
Also, the Orange owe those fans a refund. Just saying.

Trademark set: "Two-Play" and "Five." "Two-Play" is probably coach John Beilein's most famous offensive set, which starts his two-guard front offense and ends in a wide pindown for Stauskas or Robinson or Hardaway. "Five" begins with a pass to the center and a reverse to the four, which begins a series of possible reads Boals recited like his Social Security number: "They'll get the ball to the four and then run a bunch of different things out of that," he said. "They can go back screen-ball screen, back screen-flare screen-ball screen, or wing iso for Burke." This stuff is unlikely to be used as often against the zone, and Michigan might have to rely more on its arsenal of quick-hitters in addition to the usual floor-spacing zone offense. But for the junkies who want the full scout anyway, there you go.

When Michigan is on defense

1. Be patient. On Tuesday, Temple coach Fran Dunphy said one of the most difficult things about Syracuse -- among many difficult things -- was how versatile the Orange are in their pace. That could come in handy against Michigan, because "if you come down the floor and pass it twice and take a shot, you're playing right into their hands," he said. This goes back to the prevention of transition points and the desire to make Michigan play half-court offense, but it is also about the Wolverines' defense. "That's where you get them, on that end of the floor," Boals said. "If you're patient, you'll get a good shot. It's not a matter of if you get it but when." The good news? Michigan wants you to play half-court offense. "It's weird. They're not a great transition defense, sure, but they want to you play in the half court," Boals said. "That's a big emphasis for them -- preventing transition. We think the more you pass against them, the more likely you are to get a good shot."

2. Beware the help. With the exception of Burke, who is fully capable of turning opposing penetration, none of the Wolverines is particularly stout defensively. With a little ball movement and rotation, you can stretch them, drive past close-outs and get it to good spots on the floor. But you have to be careful. "They're not a team full of great individual defenders, and they're not a shot-blocking team," Boals said. "But they are a team of great help defenders. They take a lot of charges. When Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche get into the lane, they'll be looking to come over and get in position and take charges."

3. Hit the glass. The emergence of McGary on the back line has been huge for Michigan, but the Wolverines are still just an OK defensive rebounding team -- they finished eighth in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate. So while this is a piece of scouting that is probably a good idea for any team to utilize against Michigan, it is especially useful for Syracuse, whose offense is basically just OK at everything except offensive rebounding, where it is top-10-in-the-country awesome. If Michigan is overmatched by all that Syracuse size and athleticism, and the Orange get easy putbacks, it's going to be a long night in Ann Arbor and the surrounding territories.

Defensive style: Mostly man-to-man. Beilein became famous for his tricky 1-3-1 zone at West Virginia, but he has played less and less of it this season -- per Synergy, 94.7 percent of Michigan's defensive possessions are man-to-man. "They don't play nearly as much zone as they used to, but they do still mix in some stuff -- a 2-3, a 1-3-1 -- just to keep you off balance," Boals said.

Takeaway: Most people surely tune in to the Final Four because they want to hear a story -- the coach on the cusp of greatness, the star player leading his team to the finish, the uplifting homecoming tale of injured Louisville guard Kevin Ware. Believe me: I like stories, too. I'd be in the wrong business if I didn't.

But I also like to geek out about the actual basketball, which is why it's just as much fun to sit here and try to figure out exactly how Michigan is going to beat that Syracuse zone, provided it's the same Syracuse zone that allowed 0.72 points per trip en route to Atlanta. From what I can tell, a two-point plan seems to be in order:

  1. Beat the zone down the floor.
  2. Hope 3s go in.

"I think they have to get out in transition and try to beat the zone down the floor," Boals said. "They've got to try to get those easy points."

I'm not sure if Michigan can get uncontested 3s against Syracuse, because almost no one does. But I do think the Wolverines can get 3s, period, and they may just be the only team in the country good enough and confident enough to fire away from 3 with those big Orange wings flying out at them. Transition is the first option. Failing that, let fly -- and pray for rain.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Quick thoughts on Michigan's 87-85 overtime victory over Kansas on Friday at Cowboys Stadium:

Overview: In what was easily the best game of the NCAA tournament thus far, Trey Burke scored 23 points -- all after intermission -- to lead Michigan into the Elite Eight.

Kansas -- the No. 1 seed in the South Region -- appeared to be in command leading 74-66 with 1:22 remaining. But Burke led a charge that saw Michigan outscore the Jayhawks 10-2 in the next 72 seconds to force overtime. The dagger came after KU's Elijah Johnson missed a foul shot with his team leading 76-73. Burke capitalized with a 25-foot 3-pointer that made it 76-76 with four seconds left. Jayhawks guard Naadir Tharpe missed a 3-pointer as the horn sounded.

Kansas (31-6) had led by as many as 14 points in the second half.

No. 4 seed Michigan (29-7) had all the momentum during the extra period. The Wolverines went up 87-82 on two foul shots by Glenn Robinson III before Johnson drilled a 3 on the other end to pull KU within two, 87-85, with 45 seconds left. Jayhawks center Jeff Withey blocked a layup attempt by Burke on the other end. Michigan's Mitch McGary snared the offensive rebound but missed a putback attempt. Kansas snared the board as the shot clock sounded with 9.4 seconds left.

Johnson had the ball on the game's final possession and drove into the lane, where he appeared to have an open layup. But Michigan's Jordan Morgan came over at the last second and appeared to be in position to block Johnson's shot. So Johnson fired a pass to Tharpe on the right wing. Tharpe's 3-pointer at the buzzer was off the mark, and Michigan began to celebrate.

What's next: The Wolverines, after making their first Sweet 16 appearance in 19 years, will meet Florida on Sunday for the chance to go to the Final Four.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Michigan's coaches emphasized something like this all season long, and occasionally they would see it.

A glimpse in practice here. A stretch during a game there. During portions of scrimmages in which they sat point guard Trey Burke to give him rest. But for the past two months, Michigan had not seen something like this in a game.

Michigan played with the offensive flow and precision it was fully capable of Thursday night in a 71-56 victory over South Dakota State in the round of 64 of the NCAA tournament, but something was very, very different.

For the first time this season, Burke was in the single digits, a non-scoring factor with six points. A team that had appeared so reliant on its Wooden Award-candidate guard suddenly needed to find someone else to score for it.

“A lot of people say that this is a one-man offense,” Burke said. “But I practice with these guys every single day and I know what they can do. They showed it tonight.”

[+] EnlargeGlenn Robinson III
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan's Glenn Robinson III hit three 3-pointers -- his first game with more than one in two months -- on his way to 21 points.
Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III, who had not hit more than one 3-pointer in a game since Jan. 24, made three and scored 21 points on nine shots against the No. 13-seeded Jackrabbits (25-10). Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. hit five 3-pointers and scored 21 points. Freshman Mitch McGary, in the starting lineup in place of Jordan Morgan, had 13 points and nine rebounds.

And all of a sudden, fourth-seeded Michigan looked more like the top-ranked team it had been at one point this season instead of one that struggled over the past month.

“It’s nice for everybody to get to see that we don’t have to rely on Trey night in, night out to score baskets for us to win,” redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford said. “We do need his defense, which is excellent, and we need his passing and all that stuff he does so well.

“But it’s nice that we got to see we don’t need him to score 20 points a game to be successful.”

For a little while, it became a concern for Michigan. The Wolverines (27-7) knew they had talent, but too often Burke came in to bail them out when they needed it. He would make a big play on defense or score points in a quick spurt when the offense started to stagnate.

Even Michigan coach John Beilein, when he saw Burke had gone 0-for-7 in the first half, said he figured he’d go 7-for-7 in the second. But for the first time this season, he didn’t.

“We need Trey to take a lot of shots and we need Trey to carry the offensive load for us, but yeah, sometimes we do rely on him a little bit too much,” freshman guard Nik Stauskas said. “Everyone kind of stands around and watches him play.

“Today, everyone got in the flow of the offense and not forcing it. And it was great.”

Around Michigan, it was indeed great for everyone involved. Burke still had seven assists and helped defend South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters along with Hardaway and Robinson, holding him to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.

But offensively, Michigan might have found itself at its most crucial time.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Quick thoughts from No. 3 Michigan’s 76-74 overtime victory over No. 10 Ohio State at Crisler Center on Tuesday night:

Overview: Last season, with the game on the line, Michigan looked to then-freshman point guard Trey Burke to carry it. The Columbus, Ohio, native did, making two crucial, tough layups to give the Wolverines a victory over Ohio State in Ann Arbor with "College GameDay" looking on.

A year later, and Burke is now one of the best players in the country. Yet in a different season, it turned into the same situation for Michigan. At the end of the game, turn to Burke. After Burke missed an attempt at a game-winning 3-pointer in regulation, Burke hit Michigan’s only field goal in overtime.

Then, with less than a minute left, he stripped the ball from Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, then blocked a Craft shot to help seal the win for Michigan in what had become one of the best basketball games of the season.

Turning point: Craft pulled up at the free-throw line with 10 seconds left and a shot to give the Buckeyes (17-5, 7-3 Big Ten) the lead. Out of nowhere, Burke came across the lane and blocked Craft’s shot -- preserving the Michigan lead and, eventually, the game after Glenn Robinson III made one free throw and Tim Hardaway Jr. blocked Craft on a drive at the buzzer.

Key player: Hardaway, with a team-high 23 points, might have been the one doing the majority of the scoring for the Wolverines (21-2, 8-2) on Tuesday night, but it was freshman forward Mitch McGary who made the biggest difference for Michigan. Playing 29 minutes, McGary had 14 points -- both career highs -- but performed the majority of his work dealing with the game's smaller things. He was doing a little bit of everything, also finishing with four steals and a block.

Key stat: Though it took overtime, Michigan's 76 points was the most allowed by Ohio State this season. Michigan allowed 70-plus points for the fifth time and the second consecutive game. The Wolverines gave up 81 points to Indiana on Saturday, then followed it up with 74 points against Ohio State.

Miscellaneous: Michigan redshirt sophomore center Jon Horford made his third consecutive start in place of Jordan Morgan, who played sparingly as he nurses an injured right ankle. ... Burke continued to move up Michigan’s career assist list, passing his predecessor, Darius Morris, to move into 12th place. He now has 322. ... Ohio State was led by Deshaun Thomas, who had 17 points, and LaQuinton Ross, who had 16 off the bench. ... Tuesday was Michigan coach John Beilein’s 60th birthday.

Next game: Michigan travels to Wisconsin to face the Badgers at noon on Saturday. Ohio State continues a tough stretch as No. 1 Indiana visits Columbus on Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET tip.
Michigan is coming off a tough road loss to Indiana over the weekend. The Wolverines lost their No. 1 slot in The Associated Press poll as a result.

But they could begin a journey back to the top of the standings when No. 10 Ohio State travels to Ann Arbor on Tuesday night. The last time the two teams played one another, the Buckeyes earned a 56-53 victory over the Wolverines and ruined the latter’s chances of earning a No. 1 ranking the following day.

Here are five questions entering a matchup that will impact the Big Ten title race:

1. Can Deshaun Thomas do it alone? The junior combo forward is one of the most effective scorers in the country. He has a 118.1 offensive rating (20th among players who use at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). But Thomas will need help Tuesday and beyond. And that’s been one of Ohio State’s problems this year. He went 8-for-18 and scored 20 points the last time these two teams met. He was the only scorer, however, that registered double figures in a three-point win. But he recorded 28 points at Michigan State on Jan. 19 and 24 points at Illinois on Jan. 5. The Buckeyes lost both games. They’ll need some balance to beat a hungry Wolverines squad on the road.

2. What about the other Wolverines? Sure, Trey Burke is the catalyst for the Big Ten’s No. 2 scoring offense (74.4 ppg). But Michigan lost to Indiana on Saturday in part because the other Wolverines missed must-have shots. Glenn Robinson III was 1-for-6. Nik Stauskas was 3-for-10. Can’t happen against the Buckeyes, who have the second-ranked scoring defense (57.0 ppg allowed) in the league. Burke’s supporting cast has to be effective, too.

3. How important are the bigs for both teams? Both teams have been offensively inconsistent inside. Michigan’s frontcourt (Jon Horford, Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan) is more advanced on offense than Ohio State’s (Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel). But both play a secondary role to the talented wings on their respective rosters. Still, their defensive presence is vital. Williams is third in the Big Ten in blocks (2.0 per game). His ability to alter shots at the rim will definitely impact the matchup. John Beilein’s maneuvering between a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man setup confused the Buckeyes in the first meeting. His frontcourt depth enhances his D and its ability to use multiple schemes. He can go with small or big lineups, zone or man. That’s a lot for any opposing coach to consider. The stat sheet may not give either squad’s big men a lot of love. But they’ll definitely be significant.

4. Could Aaron Craft singlehandedly control the game? It’s Burke versus Craft. Always. This is a matchup that features one of the nation’s best on-the-ball defenders and the country’s best point guard. Fireworks. Michigan can’t win without an effective Burke. And the last time these two teams met Burke scored 15 points in a 4-for-13 performance. Craft’s pressure on Burke stalled the Michigan offense. A repeat of that performance could turn the game in Ohio State’s favor again. Craft, who leads the Big Ten in steals with 2.3 per game, is that relentless. He can control this entire game with his defensive tools.

5. Should anyone bet against Burke in this scenario? No. There are a lot of numbers to consider in this contest. And they all suggest that both teams are capable of leaving Crisler Arena with a victory. Ohio State beat Michigan once. The Buckeyes could do it again. Michigan is one of the nation’s most talented teams. And the Wolverines are at home. So what’s the deciding factor? For me, it’s Burke. I don’t think the sophomore will allow Michigan to lose two consecutive games, especially when its next opponent is a visiting rival. I expect to see another close matchup. But Burke’s playmaking ability will elevate Michigan in a single digit win. Ohio State won the first matchup but the Buckeyes had to hold off a determined Wolverines squad in the second half. I believe Michigan will begin this game how it ended the first one. Except this time, the Wolverines will get the win.

Weekend Watch: Michigan-Indiana preview

January, 31, 2013

Outlook: Michigan comes into Assembly Hall as the No. 1 team in the nation and the best offensive team in the country. Although the Wolverines play at a pace that is among the slower in the country, this is an excellent transition team that scores opportunistically. When Michigan runs, the Wolverines finish and score at a high rate and are devastatingly efficient. The 3-point field goals the Wolverines hit in transition are deflating. Michigan is smart, runs the lanes hard and takes advantage of open space. Michigan has the best point guard in the nation and dynamic wings who can attack the rim, and shooters who can space to the 3-point line. Trey Burke is the first Big Ten player to average more than 17 points and 7 assists per game since Magic Johnson, and is a complete guard who does absolutely everything for Michigan. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an outstanding spot-up shooter and can really run the lanes on the break. He is at his best curling off his left shoulder, as a right-hand driver, and going left to pull up. Freshman Nik Stauskas is one of the best standstill shooters in the country, shooting close to 50 percent from 3-point range. Glenn Robinson III is another dynamic wing finisher and an improving defender who can affect the game with his athleticism and energy. Jordan Morgan, out recently with an ankle injury, Mitch McGary, a lefty freshman big man, and Jon Horford all can play the pivot, but none is a shooter who can screen and space. All get theirs near the basket. On the defensive end, Michigan is better than last season, and does a solid-but-not-spectacular job in slowing down, containing and challenging shots. Michigan is good defensively, but not great. The Wolverines switch a lot of screens -- and a prepared team can take advantage of that. Michigan’s ball-screen defense is OK, but the Wolverines can be vulnerable on the glass and off the dribble.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Robinson III, Trey Burke
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsGlenn Robinson III can finish from the wing for Michigan, often via an assist from Trey Burke (3)
If Michigan is the best offensive team in the country, Indiana is not far off. Cody Zeller leads the way as the top scorer and top rebounder, but the sophomore is also a solid steals guy who runs the floor better than any big man in the nation. Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell hasn’t yet shot the ball as well as he can, but he is a good shooter who has been very good on the ball defensively, and has done a good job leading at the point. Will Sheehey is one of the toughest players in the Big Ten, and can score, pass and rebound his position and defend it, too. Zeller is the best running big man in the country. He sprints downcourt and puts an enormous amount of pressure on opposing big men. Zeller sets drag ball screens and stays flat on the baseline, but remains the Hoosiers’ top scorer and rebounder, and still chases down the most offensive rebounds. Indiana runs a lot of dribble handoffs and ball screens and does a good job of penetrating defenses off the dribble. On the defensive end, Indiana plays mostly man-to-man, with some 2-3 zone and the occasional 1-2-2 or 1-2-1-1 press to slow the opposing team and get key turnovers. Indiana is among the top scoring and shooting teams in the country, and has a defensive heart and soul in Victor Oladipo, a player who makes you special with his defensive energy and prowess.

Michigan’s best: Burke. No player in the nation is better in transition and with the ball in his hands. He is a one-man break, and balances attacking the defense with dishing it to teammates in the position to make a play. Burke has an outstanding step-back move and shooting stroke. To slow Burke, you have to make him work for everything, and to take nothing but tough 2s instead of kick-out or open 3s off dribble penetration. To slow Burke, Indiana will have to use a big man to corral him in transition, and stick with shooters on the perimeter.

Indiana’s best: Zeller. He might not excite some draft observers, but he is an outstanding runner with a great motor. Zeller can drive the ball, and Hoosiers coach Tom Crean runs a few isolation plays to allow him to do that. Zeller has some areas in which he needs to improve, including hitting a perimeter shot and rebounding productivity. He is coming off a really good outing against Purdue after consecutive struggles against Penn State and Michigan State. But despite the questions of certain scouts, Zeller is Indiana’s best player and the one the Hoosiers can’t afford to lose.

Michigan’s X factor: Stauskas. The Canadian sharpshooter is very smart about making himself available for spot-up 3-point attempts, but he also attacks the rim when he gets the right read ... and he is angry when he attacks the rim. Stauskas is a better shooter than Hardaway or Robinson, and a tough-minded kid who is going to be a great player at Michigan.

Indiana’s X factor: Oladipo. Sure, Sheehey’s toughness will be a great asset, as will Ferrell’s transition ability and status as a one-man fast break. Oladipo has shown a stunning improvement from last season, especially with regard to his shooting stroke. Crean believes that there is no timetable on winning, and that it is a 365-days-a-year thing. Oladipo has been an everyday guy, and his development has been nothing short of remarkable. He is a terrific high-energy player who is primarily a driver, but also can grab offensive rebounds and knock down open perimeter shots. Oladipo’s highest and best use is on the defensive end, where he gets steals and deflections, and he is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten and national player of the year. Oladipo is a complete player and the best defender this side of Aaron Craft of Ohio State.

Key stats: Transition points, offensive rebounds and free throws. Both teams like to run, and this game is about rhythm and easy baskets. Against Michigan, Indiana’s task is to establish its own rhythm and to disrupt the Wolverines'. And whenever there is a ball that is long or loose, you have to go get it with every fiber in your being. That can be the difference between winning and losing a Big Ten regular-season title. No team shoots and makes more free throws than Indiana, and the free throw line will be a big factor in the game. If Michigan can keep the Hoosiers off the offensive glass and off the free throw line, the Wolverines can win in a hostile environment.

Who wins: Indiana is at home, and I simply don’t see the Hoosiers losing in Assembly Hall. Michigan is an outstanding team and worthy of the top spot, but I think the Hoosiers will win the rebounding and free throw battles. I think Indiana will come out on top 81-79.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The other starters have the accolades, be it from a famous last name, a potential first-round NBA game or as a dynamic recruit.

Jordan Morgan had none of those things coming out of University of Detroit Jesuit. He was the No. 232 power forward in the 2009 recruiting class, and, in a college basketball culture where redshirts are rare, he took one. On a team with so many stars, redshirt junior Morgan might appear to be forgotten, but he is not.

He has become a consistent starter for No. 3 Michigan with room to grow, even after a 12-point, 10-rebound game in an 80-67 win against Arkansas.

Morgan, though, doesn’t seek out attention. Doesn’t necessarily need it, either.

“It’s not a big deal because, at the end of the day, I’m not forgotten in my role,” Morgan said. “In the things I do well. That’s what’s most important, doing what I can for the team and taking pleasure in that.

“It’s fun to win games.”

Michigan has won a lot this season and is 9-0 for the first time since 1988-89, when the Wolverines won the national championship. Much of the reason for success is because of guys such as Morgan, who embraced what his team needs even if it means less individual success.

Even his role needed some fine-tuning. After redshirting his freshman season to lose weight, redo his body and heal from injuries to his knee and shoulder, he gained comfort in a pick-and-roll game with his former teammate and roommate, Darius Morris.

[+] EnlargeJordan Morgan
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioForward Jordan Morgan was one of five Michigan players to score in double figures against Arkansas.
Then Morris left for the NBA and left Morgan needing to change his game again, as Trey Burke -- then an incoming freshman -- was a different type of point guard than Morris. Morris’ length allowed him to see over defenders. Burke’s speed lets him blow by them.

“Darius Morris certainly spoiled him early in his career finding him with pick-and-rolls. Trey Burke was able to find him at different moments in transition, different than the half-court sets Darius provided,” Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. “Sometimes you kind of fall in love in that aspect of the game.

“To Jordan’s credit, we were able to recalibrate him back towards a defense and rebounding mindset, and add the offensive opportunities, as well. What you’re seeing is a more complete player and a more mature player at this stage of his game.”

That maturity came more from a physical transformation -- he went from 245 pounds of fat his freshman season down to 225, and now up to 250 pounds of muscle -- and an understanding that he had to mentally stay in the game to physically remain there.

It can still be a struggle. Against Kansas State, Morgan played six minutes because he would enter the game, commit a foul, sit and have the process repeat.

It was a glimpse of his past, when mistakes compounded into more errors and kept him from being able to be on the floor for long stretches. Through all his physical improvements, this is where he says he improved the most.

“Just my mental stability, probably, playing off of mistakes and being able to step up and be a leader for this team,” Morgan said. “Through adversity, staying focused and moving on to the next play. If I make a mistake or something happens I might not agree with, just moving on.”

It sometimes is still a struggle, but he has committed more than two fouls in a game just once this season -- that Kansas State game -- and has learned to harness his emotions and stay more level.

The result has been this: on a team of stars, Morgan might never get the most attention. But he has gone from his freshman season, when college success was “not necessarily” something he thought could happen, to being a consistent starter on a top-five team.

If he keeps playing as he did Saturday, there will be no chance he'll end up being forgotten.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is an adjustment that could seem massive, but it became subtle the second Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke saw what he was working with.

Having made the decision to spurn the NBA for a second year in college, he showed up for summer open gyms, watched his new and returning teammates, and figured his role could change slightly this season.

How else to explain how, in just one half, Burke tied his career high for assists in a game, during No. 3 Michigan’s 79-72 victory over No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Oh, he didn’t score in the half, either.

A scoreless Burke, even for a half, might have led to a Michigan loss last season. It almost certainly would have led to a major struggle for the Wolverines back then.

“Oh, that would have been difficult,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “But with nine assists, though, at the end of those nine assists, someone is scoring.”

This season, it is merely part of the transformation, when arguably the nation’s best point guard can distribute first, second, third and fourth, take only two shots in a half, and find guys open nine times for baskets, and his team could lead for the majority of the half anyway.

Part of the reason is Michigan’s growing options. Burke -- who finished with his first career double-double at 18 points and 11 assists, and no turnovers -- can pick apart a defense, and hit shooters and post men over and over again with the confidence that they’ll make shots.

Consider the options on this Wolverines team. At one point in the first half, Michigan’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-leading scorers -- Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary, respectively -- scored a combined 18 consecutive points.

“Today, the team needed me to get guys going early on, and that opened it up for us in the second half,” Burke said. “I was able to get in the paint and hit guys, get in the paint and hit floaters.

[+] EnlargeNik Stauskas
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireFreshman Nik Stauskas has emerged as one of the nation's premier marksmen.
“Kind of last year, the offense would be stagnant and you guys would be used to seeing a pick-and-roll to a 3 or a pick-and-roll to the basket. Guys like Nik and Glenn [Robinson III] that can catch alley-oops and on the perimeter can hit 3s, it’s a different kind of feel this year.”

Beilein didn’t want to say this team has more options than any other in his 21 seasons coaching in Division I, mainly because his other good teams would argue with him.

But the type of depth the Wolverines have has turned Michigan from a nice team that could compete with most squads into one NC State coach Mark Gottfried labeled “legitimate” multiple times -- as in, legitimately one of the nation’s top teams.

The depth starts with Stauskas, who entered the game as Michigan’s fourth-leading scorer and had a team-high 20 points Tuesday, including scoring 13 points on four shots at one point in the first half.

While junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is the player on this Wolverines team who can score in multiple ways, Stauskas is the one who stretches the floor every time he is on it, opening up the post for Morgan, McGary and Jon Horford along with driving lanes for Hardaway and Burke.

“When I make a couple of 3s, no one really helps off me,” Stauskas said. “Trey can get into the lane a lot easier. Even when the bigs get the ball in the post, no one is going to squash down on them.

“I feel like when I make 3s, it helps the whole team out.”

Stauskas scored 17 points in one exhibition game and led Michigan in scoring. While the game meant nothing to Michigan, it meant a lot to Stauskas, who has built off of it each contest since.

Despite seeing far fewer shots than he had in summer basketball or in high school at St. Mark’s in Massachusetts, his form never left. Neither did his confidence. If anything, Stauskas has to be reminded of it every so often from his distributor, Burke.

“I tell him when I hit you and you're open, shoot the ball,” Burke said. “Sometimes he pump-fakes or dribbles. Shoot the ball.”

He has. And on a Michigan team still learning how good it potentially could be, Stauskas has become yet another option.