College Basketball Nation: Nik Stauskas
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.
Tennessee vs. Michigan
What to watch: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have led Tennessee’s charge to the Sweet 16 thus far. A Michigan team that lacks a comparable post threat could struggle with Tennessee’s tough bigs inside, but the Vols will have their hands full as they try to stay in front of Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Who to watch: The potential battle between Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 shooter who won Big Ten player of the year honors, and 6-6 wing Josh Richardson could decide the game. Richardson has to find a way to frustrate Stauskas, who can hurt opponents by shooting or slashing.
Why watch: There will be fireworks because this is not the same Tennessee team that struggled throughout the SEC season. The Vols are hot right now and are running into a Michigan team that also overcame adversity -- notably the losses of Trey Burke and Mitch McGary -- to reach this stage.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
What to watch: Kentucky had little trouble in its 73-66 victory over Louisville on Dec. 28, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the hybrid zone that Louisville has used in recent weeks will stifle Kentucky’s offense this time.
Who to watch: Julius Randle (17 points) had a great game the first meeting. Can Montrezl Harrell & Co. find a way to stop the future lottery pick?
Why watch: This is Louisville-Kentucky with a shot at the Elite Eight on the line. It’s that simple.
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."
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.
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.
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.
It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.
We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.
With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.
Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:
- Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
- Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
- Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
- Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
- Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
- Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
- T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
- Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
- Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
- Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.
And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.
In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.
On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.
"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.
3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.
4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.
8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.
9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.
10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.
Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (
Even if Wednesday’s venue weren’t his father’s old palace, Glenn Robinson III's game-winning shot in No. 16 Michigan’s 77-76 overtime win at Purdue -- a victory that helped the Wolverines maintain control of the Big Ten title race -- would have meant something.
No player on the Michigan roster has faced more pressure than Robinson following last season’s Final Four. Trey Burke’s departure, it seemed, meant that Michigan would be Robinson’s World in 2013-14.
He’d return to a more natural small forward slot after competing at the four-spot last season alongside Tim Hardaway Jr. on the wing. John Beilein would run his best stuff through the promising sophomore, who had a chance to make a lot of money last summer before choosing to return to Ann Arbor with his buddy Mitch McGary.
All seemed right for Michigan -- until it all went wrong.
There were times when he forced everything (see his 4-for-14 effort in a November loss to Iowa State). In other moments, he just disappeared (eight single-digit scoring outputs this season). But he’s also looked like a star in multiple outings.
Consistently being a star has been the unattainable feat thus far.
It has been much easier to note his shortcomings than his strengths. He’s ranked 15th in the Big Ten in Ken Pomeroy’s individual offensive efficiency ratings. He boasts a stat pool (12.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 49 percent from the field) that would be an overachievement for many. But his numbers are down compared to last season.
Therefore, he has been clothed in scrutiny.
Where has he been in late-game situations? Why isn’t he more aggressive? Why the here today, gone tomorrow pattern?
All of those are honest questions.
But they fail to capture the reality that Robinson is a sophomore who is still figuring things out. If his father weren’t a former No. 1 pick, if there wasn’t NBA chatter hovering over his season and a national title game appearance inked onto his resume, it’d be easier to acknowledge that his struggles are the norm for most underclassmen.
That’s not an excuse; just the truth.
He was on the drums last season, but everyone expected him to play lead guitar this one. Sure, he can do it. But that’s a tremendous chasm for any young player to navigate.
As the season comes to close though, Robinson is reminding all of us that his potential never changed. He just needed more time to get there.
With Michigan down one point Wednesday, Beilein drew up an intricate scheme with 2.9 seconds left that had LeVert toss a pass to Robinson on the right side of the floor. He’d found some room by rushing toward LeVert before curling off Spike Albrecht’s screen and reversing to his original spot, a sequence that momentarily perplexed Purdue. But when Robinson caught the high pass, he was trapped. He split a pair of Purdue defenders and scored on a buzzer-beating layup off the glass, a shot that took its time before finally dropping, and crushed a Boilermakers squad that had a 19-point lead in the first half.
On the same floor 20 years ago, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson averaged 30.3 PPG for a Purdue team that he ultimately carried to the Elite Eight. So there’s certainly a poetic element to what Robinson did on his father’s court in those closing seconds on Wednesday.
But that’s not the full story.
Robinson finished with 15 points in a Sunday win against rival Michigan State. On Wednesday, he added 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
That Beilein would put the ball in Robinson’s hands on the final possession showcased the trust he has in the talented sophomore.
Michigan has a deep roster again and is capable of a return to the Final Four. Its versatility has been a thorn in the side of the (arguably) nation’s best conference for months.
And now the youngster who was supposed to lead this potential charge toward Arlington, Texas, before the year began has mustered up the mojo that’s most desirable as the postseason approaches.
Robinson didn’t answer everything with one shot on Wednesday. But there should be fewer questions now about the second-year man who’s growing at a respectable pace.
Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.
Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.
I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.
Just the typical mid-February chaos.
This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.
But I’ll do my best.
Last week: 4-1
VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.
Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56
No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84
No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.
Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70
No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.
Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72
No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.
Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60
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.
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.
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.
Does the Big Ten owe Tom Crean lunch?
On Saturday afternoon, during Iowa’s ruthless home rout of Michigan, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich hit on a key insight.
Convention would dictate that a coach should check Michigan guard Nik Stauskas with as tall a wingman as he had available -- the better to challenge Stauskas, who spent all of January destroying Big Ten defenses, on the perimeter. But Dakich noted that when Indiana played (and beat) Michigan, Crean used a much shorter player -- 5-foot-11 point guard Yogi Ferrell -- on the Wolverines’ star. Crean didn’t make this decision out of necessity: 6-foot-7 Indiana wing Troy Williams might be the Hoosiers’ best all-around defender, and he would have been convention’s perfect candidate. But Ferrell’s quickness, his ability to stay inside Stauskas’ comfort zone, made him a constant nuisance. Stauskas, who had averaged a scorching 131.0 offensive rating since Dec. 21, who blew kisses to the Breslin Center, who was unstoppable ... finished with six points on 1-of-4 shooting. It was his worst game of the season.
Say what you want about the frustrating, stop-start 2013-14 Indiana Hoosiers, but it would appear their coach did the rest of the Big Ten a solid.
Of course, Stauskas was probably due for a natural regression at some point. He was never going to sustain 45 percent shooting from 3 and 60 percent from 2. Maybe that regression came along on its own, and teamed up with Crean’s unconventional strategy. Maybe? It’s hard to tease exactly all of this out.
But there is clearly something to the idea of chasing Stauskas around the court with a small, quick, aggressive man-to-man defender. He is more likely to turn the ball over. He is less likely to get to the rim. He may see 3s more easily, but when he was tearing opposing defenses apart in January, any of them would have begged to turn Stauskas back into the semi-manageable spot-up shooter they had to worry about a year ago. Better that than unstoppable all-court destruction, you know? Better him be uncomfortable. Better to take away something.
Ohio State, for all of its issues -- and it another of those inconsistent Big Ten teams with massive, glaring flaws -- does one thing extremely well: perimeter defense. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are excellent perimeter defenders, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson aren’t far behind. As a group, the Buckeyes force Big Ten opponents into turnovers on nearly 21 percent of their possessions. OSU opponents also shoot the worst percentage in the league (28.6) from 3, and that’s when they even get a shot off, which isn’t often (just 30.6 percent of shots against the Buckeyes are 3s, second fewest in the Big Ten). The Buckeyes’ offense is occasionally a train wreck; it’s usually pretty tough to watch. But Ohio State's defense is still a nightmare for opposing guards.
If you’re Stauskas, there is no worse way to break out of a three-game mini-slump than having Craft and Scott chase you around the perimeter. Whether the league’s coaches have figured out an antidote is almost beside the point. Ohio State had one ready all along.
During Roy Devyn Marble’s “He Got Game” moment Saturday, ESPN’s cameras caught him yelling something as his teammates surrounded him following another 3-pointer -- he hit 50 of them, it seemed -- in the middle of No. 17 Iowa’s 85-67 victory over No. 10 Michigan in Iowa City.
It was something about Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There was a word that began with the letter ‘F’ and a mention of a house. The audio was off so viewers had to lip-read.
“This is my frigid house!” Maybe. It is cold this time of year in Iowa City. And four of Michigan’s starters, not named Caris LeVert (6-for-12, 22 points), shot a combined 5 for 19 from the field. Maybe that’s what he was referring to.
Or maybe Marble (22 of 26 points, six 3-pointers in the first half) said, “This is my fortified house!” That would make sense. Carver-Hawkeye has undergone some impressive renovations in recent years.
The Hawkeyes should celebrate the win. They’d lost three of their last five prior to Saturday, including home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. They were losing grip on their dreams of making a late run at the Big Ten title and earning a high seed in the Big Dance.
Iowa halted its slide with a fantastic effort. Marble was the catalyst. Everything flows well when he’s in a rhythm.
Melsahn Basabe gets dirty buckets and rebounds (eight points, 10 rebounds, two assists). The floor opens up for Mike Gesell (10 points, eight assists, one turnover, three steals). Aaron White can just be Aaron White (11 points, eight rebounds, two steals and one block). Iowa’s bench (24 points total; nine points, four rebounds, three blocks for Gabriel Olaseni) blossoms, too.
The Hawkeyes benefited from their relaxed demeanor. That’s always more prominent when you’re up by double digits. But it was also the byproduct of Marble’s early success.
Soon, however, coach Fran McCaffery will remind his team that this thing is not finished. Not even close.
Four of Iowa’s final seven Big Ten games are road games. The Hawkeyes will see Wisconsin in Iowa City and Michigan State in East Lansing. They understand the stakes. They've had their hearts broken and broken those of their supporters many times under McCaffery.
But this season should be different. Right now, the NCAA tournament shouldn't be the only prize for the Hawkeyes. Sure, it would be a notable achievement for a program that hasn't participated in March Madness since 2006. Iowa hasn't won an NCAA tourney game since 2001. So a bid would be commendable, considering the history. That shouldn't be the only goal, though. The Hawkeyes can compete with the best teams in America and do more than just smile on Selection Sunday.
They can survive and advance -- if Marble is the assertive, efficient playmaker he was against Michigan.
On Tuesday, Iowa suffered a 76-69 home loss to Ohio State, the same Ohio State team that had lost five of its last seven entering that matchup. Marble went 4-for-11 in that game. He missed his three 3-point attempts. He committed four turnovers and three fouls. On Jan. 22, Michigan secured a 75-67 victory over Iowa in Ann Arbor. Marble recorded 13 points (3-for-9), four turnovers and four fouls.
The same Iowa team that registered just 1.02 points per possession in the first meeting with Michigan recorded 1.32 PPP in the second matchup with the Wolverines. The Hawkeyes made 52.2 percent of its shots outside the paint and outscored the Wolverines 22-8 in transition, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Michigan's Nik Stauskas, a Big Ten player of the year contender, and Glenn Robinson III scored 12 points combined.
So Marble can’t take full credit for Iowa’s win. He had help. A lot of it.
But he can accept the responsibility that the Hawkeyes need him to play with the confidence and aggression he displayed Saturday. That’s the only way that they’ll go as far as they’re capable of going. That’s the only way that they’ll stay in the Big Ten race. That’s the only way that they’ll thrive in the NCAA tournament.
Yes, Carver-Hawkeye -- albeit, right now -- might be Marble’s house. But Iowa is his team. And with that declaration comes the expectation that Saturday’s effort will be closer to the norm than an anomaly throughout the rest of the season.
Still, John Beilein had the pieces to compete for a Big Ten title. When McGary's back problems snowballed into season-ending surgery, however, those dreams should have been squashed.
But they weren't.
Beilein's squad is on top of the Big Ten now, despite everything it has lost since that Final Four run, as it prepares to face No. 17 Iowa on Saturday (2 ET, ESPN). Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten's player of the year. Robinson and Caris LeVert are pivotal components of No. 10 Michigan's success, too. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford aren't superstars, but they're respectable.
They're not the biggest team in the land, but Michigan's high-powered offense (third in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has its "disadvantages" as an advantage. The Wolverines are difficult to guard because they're led by players who stretch the floor and create mismatches, especially on fast breaks and in space.
Their defense is still a work in progress, though. The Wolverines allowed a Michigan State team that competed without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson to score 1.19 points per possession in their win over their in-state rivals on Jan. 22. But they've given up 63.9 PPG in Big Ten play, second in the league.
Defensive discipline will be the key in Michigan's matchup in Iowa City on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have lost three of five, largely because of their own defensive deficiencies. But their offense (sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has struggled during this slide, too. The Hawkeyes scored only 1.01 PPP in their loss to Ohio State on Tuesday. They recorded 1.01 PPP in a loss to Michigan State last week. In their Jan. 22 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes managed 1.02 PPP. They made just 20 percent of their 3-point attempts in that loss.
In a game between two of the top offensive units in America on Saturday, defense shouldn't be overlooked. Both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes have had challenges on that end of the floor this season. They possess flashy offenses. So it could be a high-scoring game.
But defensive stops will matter most.
The original version of this file just said "Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott, Doug McDermott" over and over again for 1,000 words, but my editors told me that wouldn't work,* so I guess we'll stick with the usual format.
*Not actually a true story.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: This week’s Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) could probably just be reduced to an embed of this video, highlights of McDermott’s Tuesday night against St. John’s, when he shot 15-of-26 and scored 39 of his team's 63 points -- including the game-winning 3. But just like my first (not real!) submission, that would be a disservice to the loyal members of ACMcDAT Nation. So here it is, your list of ACMcDAT facts:
- McDermott is now averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3, and 89.3 percent from the free throw line.
- He takes 37.9 percent of his team’s shots and ends 33 percent of their possessions. Despite these facts, his offensive rating is 121.5 and his true shooting percentage 62.5.
- This week, McDermott scored the 2,741st point of his career, which moved him to 18th on the all-time scoring list. He passed both Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers in doing so. Next in line: J.J. Redick, Allan Houston, Kevin Bradshaw, Otis Birdsong and Larry Bird.
- If McDermott averages 25 points in his last nine regular-season games, he will enter the Big East tournament with 2,966 career points, seven shy of Oscar Robertson.
- No one is ever going to catch Pete Maravich's all-time scoring record because he scored 44.2 points per game. Don’t ask, next question.
- Thanks to Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson, the ACMcDAT now includes the following information: On Tuesday night, McDermott made five shots off the backboard and two with his left hand. Of his 992 career field goals, 436 banked in, and 126 were shot lefty.
- Creighton’s offense is scoring 1.25 points per possession this season, best in the country, and 1.20 against Big East opponents, best in the league.
- He's probably top-five on this list. I might put him at No. 3.
- He's going to win the Wooden Award.
McDermott has really done the Wooden Watch a solid these past few weeks. Figuring out the rest of this list will still be tough, but the No. 1 spot will be very, very easy. Thanks, Doug.
2. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Forget ACMcDAT negligence: The best argument for keeping the rest of these rankings fresh resides in Tucson, Ariz. Johnson is an efficient scorer and all-around offensive player who also just so happens to be an elite perimeter defender. On Wednesday, the former gave Arizona the decisive go-ahead margin it needed in a 3-point survival at Stanford. But it was the latter -- that defense, and how coach Sean Miller implements Johnson alongside the Wildcats' brutish interior core -- that held the Cardinal to just two field goals in the final 10 minutes. Before Johnson iced his 3, he made one of the best help-defense blocks we've seen all season. It was his national-player-of-the-year case wrapped in one tidy highlight package. In any other season, he'd be No. 1.
4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse: Last week, Jim Boeheim’s insistence that Fair was his team’s best player helped convince the Watch to include him over point guard Tyler Ennis. The temptation to swap the two again beset the Watch this week. Ennis did have 16 points in the second half at Wake, after all, and his combination of effective outside shooting and ballhandling (Ennis finds a teammate for a score on 31.1 percent of his possessions and turns it over on just 12.6 percent) remains as lethal as ever. But the one real flaw plaguing Fair's game early in the season -- turnovers -- is slowly starting to recede, and in the meantime he's playing 91.9 percent of his team’s available minutes (!) and using 26.5 percent of Syracuse's possessions while doing so. That's … kind of crazy.
5. Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Let's go to John Gasaway for a remote report on Nik Stauskas. John? "Since [Jan. 2], John Beilein's team has not failed to record at least 1.13 points per in any game. Over this six-game, non-pedestrian span UM has made 60 percent of its twos and 40 percent of its threes. (I think there’s a t-shirt design waiting to happen there.) For Nik Stauskas personally, those six-game numbers are 60 and 46 percent respectively, and in that stretch he's taken 25 percent of the shots that occur in this offense during his minutes. Well, I can certainly see why the Wooden committee wants nothing to do with this guy." Thanks, John. And let me just say, for all of us here in the Wooden Watch studios, we certainly want everything to do with Stauskas. Because Stauskas, as the kids say, is Ball. Ing. And now, the weather …
6. Joel Embiid (Kansas): On Wednesday night, I looked up from my laptop early in Kansas’s 92-81 home win over Iowa State just in time to see Embiid take the ball on the left block, engage with the post defender, pivot toward the baseline into his right shoulder and sink a tidy little 6-foot turnaround jumper. It’s possible Embiid has made that exact shot before, but I haven’t seen it. It may have been the first time he attempted it. Here’s the point: This happens all the time. You put your head down for a minute, and then you look up, and Embiid is putting into practice something that even most good college big men can't do with decades of camps at their back. Oh, and he blocks 12.2 percent of opponents' shots, too. So there's that.
7. Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: For a relatively deep dig into exactly what Duke did to arguably the nation’s second-best offensive player in his 4-of-14 performance Monday night, see here. You should also know that before Monday’s off night, Patterson had 28 points in 14 shots with 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals at Maryland. He deserves to stay.
8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: As of Thursday, two players in the country use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions and have a higher offensive rating than Thames. One is Billy Baron, who is putting up some wild numbers at Canisius this season. The other is Cameron Bairstow, who would be in the top 10 if New Mexico wasn't quite so permissive on defense. (McDermott, for what it's worth, ranks fourth on this list, despite that 33 percent usage rate. Also wild.) San Diego State guards like crazy but has no other offensive options, save one. Fortunately, the one it does have is really, really good.
9. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith's player-of-the-year candidacy looks destined to go overlooked this season for a variety of team-related reasons, but now that Louisville has won four straight (including that road win at UConn), it's a good time to bring him back into the discussion. Because Smith is still playing the most efficient offense of his career, shooting the ball and dishing easy buckets to teammates more effectively than ever before and still playing his disruptive brand of perimeter defense.
10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Here’s the thing about Wiggins: He has been pretty good for most of the season. He hasn't been LeBron James 2.0. He hasn't been perfectly consistent from game to game. But a baseline, his all-around, all-court performance has been immensely solid. Now -- with 56 points in his past two games, 29 of which came Wednesday against Iowa State -- we're starting to see some of the brilliance that had NBA scouts so excited. If he keeps it up, and Kansas keeps looking like the Non-Arizona, Non-Syracuse Team Most Likely To Win The National Title, we'll be discussing him more in the future.
Besides, Julius Randle had his worst game of the season at LSU (3-of-11, six points, five rebounds) Tuesday, and Marcus Smart hasn't played all that well of late. Also, he's being punished for excessive flops. It's Wooden Watch, not Wooden Flops, am I right? OK, we’ll stop now.
Honorable mentions: Smart (Oklahoma State), Randle (Kentucky), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Casey Prather (Florida), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State)
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.
“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.”