Wolverines to Open Key Stretch Thursday against Purdue
January 30, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
BIG TEN CONFIDENCE
Coming off a win in East Lansing, the University of Michigan men's basketball team (No. 10 AP, No. 14 Coaches) is riding a nine-game win streak that includes a 7-0 record in Big Ten play. The streak marks the first time the Wolverines have started conference play with seven straight wins since 1976-77. Michigan has beaten three straight top-10 opponents for the first time in school history and is the first team in the nation to defeat three consecutive top-10 opponents since 1987. The Wolverines have wins at No. 3 Wisconsin (77-70, Jan. 18), against No. 10 Iowa (75-67, Jan. 22) and at No. 3 Michigan State (80-75, Jan. 25).
The Wolverines started the year at No. 7 in the preseason polls before dropping out of the rankings after losses at Iowa State (77-70), against Charlotte (63-61), at No. 10 Duke (79-69) and at home against No. 1 Arizona (72-70); but those losses did not shake the Wolverines' confidence.
"I think even when we lost the games we did, guys were still preaching the same things of how good we could be if we just embrace the little things that are going to win you games," said fifth-year captain Jordan Morgan. "I think we had to take some of those losses to really see the magnitude of those little things and realize there are no little things."
By continuing to break down the season into one game at a time, the Wolverines put aside doubters and began the Big Ten season strong.
"To be honest, from going up and down, I don't think a lot has changed about this team," Morgan added. "We've been the same team doing the same things throughout, just slowly getting better. Our young guys are slowly growing. I don't think a lot's changed about who we are.
"I think that's something we've been learning from continuously as a program. Over these past few years we've had that back and forth, being the hunter vs. the hunted. We always go through these spells where it's up and down, people counting us out or people hopping on the bandwagon. Over the years, we've gotten better and better at just keeping an even keel no matter what people are saying: whether they're counting us out, or whether they're hopping on. It validates our approach even more, just going day by day."
Now the Wolverines are the only team in the Big Ten who maintain a perfect record in conference play so far this season.
"Playing top-25 teams, and being on the road, and having to face adversity at times, we all grew from those moments. Winning big games on the road definitely boosts everyone's confidence on the team," said sophomore captain Glenn Robinson III. "I think we all love the atmosphere of people hating us or doubting us. I think that banded us together and created a will that we want to win."
"It just shows our youth is not anything that should be an excuse," added Morgan. "We can play with anybody in the country, especially when we commit to being great teammates and going beyond just scoring the basketball to really defending hard and going after lose basketballs and rebounding hard. When we do all those things, we can compete against any team in the country we feel."
BALANCED WOLVERINE ATTACK
Contributing to the Wolverines' conference success so far has been their wide array of offensive options.
Sophomore Nik Stauskas continues to make headlines, being named Big Ten Player of the Week for the second straight week, as well as Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week. Against Iowa and Michigan State, he averaged 22.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and one steal per game. He shot 57.5 percent from the field (15-for-26) and 60 percent from behind the arc (9-for-15) and made 6-for-7 from the foul line.
But while Stauskas has been a key player for the Wolverines, it's the team's ability as a whole to respond to the opportunities they are given on offense that has made them so successful. Michigan is shooting a Big Ten-best 48.5 percent from the field. That clip is right on pace with the 2012-13 Wolverines, who closed the season averaging 48.4 percent from the field -- the best under John Beilein at U-M.
"It's not like I'm dialing up every play that we're running. There's just so much residual action," said U-M head coach John Beilein. "It is great to have somebody like Caris (LeVert). He really plays off of residual action a lot, much like Glenn did last year. Derrick (Walton Jr.) found himself in those situations as well. His jump shot on the right side that went around the rim and went in (against Michigan State) was a huge shot. But that was something he's just spacing. So, I think it's good to have guys they can't cheat off of in a game. That's what's important, rather than dial somebody up. It's really good to have people that they can't cheat off."
But Beilein is quick to note that baskets aren't the only difference making plays of the game. He praised Caris LeVert, who scored 17 points Saturday night against Michigan State, for making decisive plays that sometimes slip under the radar.
"He's way out in front of all our guys in steals," Beilein said. "He gets his hands on more steals and deflections. He's probably our best push man in the break. He usually guards one of their best defenders. These are all things that are uncharted. And he just makes us better when he's out there. His quickness, I think, is what separates him."
As the Wolverines gain confidence from their perfect start to Big Ten play, their young players are becoming more poised as well.
Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. iced the game against Michigan State by hitting free throws down the stretch. He was 9-for-10 from the line on the night.
"He had to make big foul shots in several games," said Beilein. "Sometimes he was successful, sometimes he wasn't. In that environment (East Lansing), for him to do that -- that bodes well for who he is. Thank goodness it didn't go the other way, especially for a kid from this state. That would creep up on you for a long time. It showed he's got great confidence. And I don't think that will change now."
The Wolverines' new challenge is to continue to play with the same mentality as they did throughout this first difficult stretch of conference play.
"That's the one thing you've got to worry about now is guys getting satisfied," said Morgan. "I don't think we've seen any signs of that in practice. They're still hungry."
"I think it's my job (as a captain) to go out there and practice with the right mentality," added Robinson. "The minute they (my teammates) see me slacking or Jordan or Jon (Horford), the whole team will. I think that's something we've been doing a great job of, and that's why we're having success."
"You trust the character of your kids. You trust that they get it, they understand this game," said Beilein. "The losses that we had earlier in the year probably were great tools for them, as well. Not that they weren't up for those games, but there's sudden change all the time in basketball. Our captains will help with that, and our staff helps with that. There was a bunch of teams that were all highly ranked before league season started. They had unblemished records. Now, they're not even close to it. This comes and goes. You've got to keep pressing on and be persistent day to day."
The right mindset is crucial, as the season will only grow more difficult for the Wolverines. Michigan begins a stretch of five games in 13 days with three road games -- at Indiana, at Iowa and at Ohio State.
"Being able to transition from game to game, being able to have our bodies recover, being mature about that stuff is going to be key in this stretch coming up," said Morgan.
"Things can change so quickly on you," added Beilein. "When you have this many games in a row, you want to be playing well, you've just got to find a way to stay fresh and sharp at the same time."
THE BOILERMAKERS VISIT ANN ARBOR
Beginning the 13-day stretch for the Wolverines is a home game against Purdue. The Boilermakers come to Ann Arbor with a 13-7 overall mark and a 3-4 record in Big Ten Play. After dropping their opening conference games, the Boilermakers won three straight before losing their last two -- one in double overtime -- at Northwestern and most recently to Wisconsin at Mackey Arena.
Purdue, which plays up to 11 players on a regular basis, is led by 7-0 sophomore center A.J. Hammons, who averages 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and a Big Ten-best 3.3 blocks per games. In addition to Hammons, the Boilermakers are paced by the brother tandem of Terone and Ronnie Johnson. Terone, a senior guard, leads Purdue with 13.4 points per game along with 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Sophomore guard Ronnie is second with 10.6 points but leads the team with 3.6 assists per game.
"Any Matt Painter team is going to be strong, tough, defensive oriented," said Beilein of the Boilermakers. "They have the Johnson brothers who we could not stop last year. Terone could get anywhere he wanted to get to. So it's a big challenge for us. They're also averaging 15 offensive rebounds a game. That has been a difficult thing for us to stop at times this year. We've got to keep them off the backboard."
Purdue is the third-best overall rebounding team in the Big Ten (40.1) but ranks last in free throw shooting at 66.7 percent as a team.
The Wolverines trail in the overall series against the Boilermakers, 64-84, but have won three of the last five meetings, including a sweep last season. Purdue's two wins, however, have both come at Crisler Center.
Thursday's game (Jan. 30) will be the first of two meetings on the season for U-M and Purdue. The Wolverines will make a return trip to Mackey Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 26.