Early this season, I had the opportunity to see Michigan on the road against Iowa State. It was not a bad loss for the Wolverines, as Hilton Coliseum is a tough place to win. There was Hilton Magic that day, but Michigan showed some potential.
I remember saying over and over during the telecast that when Michigan's young players gained more experience in coach John Beilein's system, they were going to be tough.
A few weeks later, Dan Shulman and I called Michigan's game against Duke. The Blue Devils had one of their best performances of the season defensively and did a great job containing Nik Stauskas, who has since developed into a star. In fairness to Stauskas, he was bothered by an ankle injury that day and could not get space to shoot. But despite the loss, I could once again see that the team had potential.
Michigan was 6-4 through the first 10 games of the season. But the Wolverines have now won nine in a row, including a showdown for first place in the Big Ten at Michigan State on Saturday. They're now playing to the the potential I saw earlier and Beilein deserves a tip of the hat for making it happen.
Beilein knows how to develop players. He is a teacher who gets his players to perform better as the season progresses. He has been a winner everywhere he has been. And what a journey it has been, starting as a head coach at Erie Community College in 1978, to Nazareth College, LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before landing in Ann Arbor in 2008.
At Michigan, Beilein is at a place where he will get great players who he knows will fit in his system. You can see how Stauskas and Caris LeVert have grown into their roles. Now you can take it to the bank that Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will become outstanding players with more experience.
Five weeks ago, when Michigan lost star center Mitch McGary to back surgery, Beilein did not flinch with the bad news. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and got commitments from Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford to dedicate themselves to post play. They screen and roll, they rebound and together they have combined to average 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots per game while dividing time in the lane. And they have done a great job setting screens for Stauskas, getting him open for good looks at the basket.
All of the pieces are coming together for Michigan, which tells me they can make a deep run come tournament time. The Wolverines got a lot of positive tourney experience last season, going all the way to the championship game before falling to Louisville.
Stauskas has become a true star. His ability to shoot the jumper is obvious, but he can put the ball on the floor and take it to the basket, too. He has swagger and confidence galore. LeVert is an attacker with the basketball, and we saw what Walton is capable of Saturday.
East Lansing is a tough and intimidating place to play. But Walton handled it with poise, scoring a career-high 19 points and showing his coolness by sinking 9 of 10 free throws, most of them late in the game. He was money in the bank, getting the Wolverines to the winner's circle.
This was not the same Michigan State team we will see come tournament time. The Spartans were without Adreian Payne, who missed his fifth straight game with a foot injury, and Branden Dawson, who has a broken hand. It is hard to win when you take away an average of 26 points and 16 rebounds per game, plus a wealth of experience. When Michigan State can put all the pieces together, watch out. Tom Izzo has a team capable of cutting the nets down at the Final Four in Texas.
But for now, it's Michigan leading the Big Ten standings.